Build Stuff, the book, finally arrives!

Build Stuff with Wood, a project book for true woodworking beginners, went on sale this week on Amazon.com. I finished writing and shooting it in 2017, but had to wait all this time until folks could actually see it and buy it! My deep hope is that it reaches its audience, folks out there who are inspired to build things with wood but just don’t know where to start.

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Unlike most of the other beginner books out there, this one has projects you can actually build, with basic tools and no previous knowledge. And all the projects are worth building. Most books fall short of one of those goals, presenting projects that are either deceptively difficult or totally uninspiring, especially to younger people.

(By the way, I’ve posted tons of things from the book in this blog, so dig around the site for a sampling of great, tips, techniques, and projects.)

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It’s not easy to design cool stuff that you can pull off with no skills and limited tools, then actually use. In many ways, I’ve been preparing a lifetime for this task.

I learned at a young age how satisfying it is to build things, with my first model rockets, bike hacks, and illegal “forts” in the woods, made from scavenged lumber. I honed my skills in trade school, soaked up some engineering in college, then learned how people learn as a high-school and college teacher. I learned to write and shoot photos as a working journalist, and caught the woodworking bug big time when I bought my first house.

I came to Fine Woodworking magazine as an entry-level editor, eventually rising to serve as chief editor for 7-plus years before heading west to Oregon to do things like writing woodworking books for beginners:-) At FWW I learned tons more about how woodworkers learn, and was exposed to a host of amazing techniques that let you do more with less. I created a number of video series for beginners, but ever really got a chance to teach folks with no skills or tools at all.

My mission now is to spread the gospel of making things by hand. We need it now more than ever, as we live more and more on screen and in our heads. If you know anyone who is inspired make things but is still standing at the edge of the pool, please tell them about this book. Same goes for anyone with a few skills but little time, who is looking for quick, easy projects worth bragging about.

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True satisfaction is way deeper than temporary pleasure. And building and creating is the surest path I know to that inner sanctum.

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Dust collection made simple

A few years back, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) named wood dust a known carcinogen. That was a big wake-up call for the whole woodworking industry, which answered with a host of practical new products for keeping workshops clean and airways healthy. In an upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine, I offer up a practical approach for dust collection in small workshops. Here are the broad strokes.

Let’s start at the start. In days past, wood dust was simply considered a nuisance, which it definitely is. It doesn’t take long for workshops to pile up with chips and fine dust to migrate from basements and attached garages into living spaces, coating everything in a furry layer.

Allergy sufferers have always known fine dust was the enemy, especially when added to springtime pollen. But we all lived with it, and if folks had dust collectors at all, they were the type with porous cloth bags, which grab the big chips and save you some sweeping, but blast out the most dangerous dust at head height.

By the way, the problem with the finest dust is that it hangs longest in the air, penetrates deepest into lungs and airways, and is the hardest for the body to get rid of.

But that was then. Once the CDC and NIOSH spoke up, people got serious about wood dust. The good news is that new products and new approaches make it easier than ever to bust dust for good.

The secret is collecting it at the source, as it is made, and then having filters that won’t let it escape. You can start with a powerful shop vac. Install a HEPA filter in it and attach the hose to all the portable tools in your shop. You’ll be shocked at how dust-free your random-orbit sander will be with a vac pulling the dust through those holes in the sanding disks. And your sandpaper will last twice or three times longer without all that dust clogging it!

Step two is a true dust collector. If you try attaching a shop vac to big chip producers like a tablesaw or planer, you’ll find it lacks the volume and velocity to pull the chips and dust through the small hose. As for which dust collector to buy, there are amazing cyclone collectors out there, but even the compact ones are over $1,000. For most of us, the practical choice is a single-stage dust collector, like the one pictured here. Those have better filters now too, called cartridge filters. They are pleated, which vastly increases surface area, so you can have finer filtration without hurting airflow and effectiveness.

Pleated cartridge filters are available for almost every old dust collector out there, and available as standard equipment on new ones. Manufacturers like Jet and Grizzly offer them for their collectors, and aftermarket companies like Damn Filters and Wynn Environmental offer retrofits in all sizes.

The tradeoff with fine filters is clogging, which will kill airflow. But there are a number of solutions. For dust collectors, there are internal flappers inside the filter, which knock off the dust caked inside. Better yet, you can blow from the outside in with compressed air.

Shop vacs tends to clog too, but there again, there are solutions. Some fancy vacs have a self-cleaning function, but those work only so-so in my experience. You can buy and use paper bags inside as a pre-filter, but those are pricey throwaway items.

My favorite solution is Oneida’s Dust Deputy, which can be attached to any vac and separates out almost all the dust before it can even reach the vac and its fine filter. Plus the Dust Deputy’s bucket is easer to dump into the trash.

Check out these pics for more of the story, plus some handy accessories that make life easier.

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A two-pronged approach will grab 90% of the dust in your shop. If you have big machines, you need a 1-1/2-hp+ dust collector to grab the big piles of chips they produce. For small portable tools like sanders, a shop vac is perfect. I’ll tell you what that weird white bucket thing is in a moment.
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Connect that shop vac to everything you can. I made this router-table fence with a dust box behind the fence, with a big hole that accepts a handy adaptor on the end of the hose.
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I even attach my shop vac to my miter saw. It is less than perfect, but much better than nothing.
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The great thing about a big dust collector is that it can take multiple hoses, with blast gates that direct the airflow to where it is needed.
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For machines like my planer and bandsaw, I use a long stretch hose and another handy adaptor to quick-connect as needed.
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The other hose is dedicated to my tablesaw, which I use all the time. It’s old so I had to add a dust port to the back. I also put a big plywood box on the side to cover the big hole in the cabinet, and raised the floor inside to bring it up to the level of the port. It collects dust like a mo-fo now.
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The clogging problem. All shop vac filters clog, but especially the fine HEPA filters you should be using. No worries: There is a killer solution.
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This mini-cyclone from Oneida separates out 99% of the dust before it reaches the filter, and its bucket is super-easy to dump. It comes with attachment kit that lets it roll with any vac.
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For your big dust collector, you definitely need a pleated cartridge filter. These are available on new collectors and as retrofits.
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These fine filters clog too, but a blast of compressed air blows off the dust caked inside. You can also rotate the handles up top, which rotates a set of internal flappers for the same purpose.
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And here is a remote dust collector switch from iVac. I love it. It lets me turn on the vac with a handy remote, so I can stay at the tablesaw or any other machine without pausing to walk over and bend down to turn the collector on and off.

Choosing and installing replacement windows

Normally I like to do every last thing I can on my house. It saves money, and I just love the work. However, for the big job of replacing all the windows on my house, plus adding all new siding, I hired out the work to a trusted local contractor. But if you read on, you’ll find out how to choose the right materials and how to keep your contractor honest. You might even learn how to tackle the job yourself.

In an earlier blog, I installed a window in my garage, to give me a nice view and some natural light in my workshop space. So it bothered me a little to just watch the work this time! But it was a wise choice. My contractor has better ladders, more workers, and more know-how, and I just have too much work at the moment. That said, watching it happen, I realize that this is a job a lot of people could do.

In the milder climate of the Pacific Northwest, where I live, a lot of houses were built with just a single skin of exterior-grade plywood. No house wrap, and no siding. That’s the deal on the 1979 fixer-upper we bought in 2015. So adding windows is a little bit different than it is on a house with plywood sheathing plus siding. But not much.

Modern windows have a simple nailing flange all around the outside. You just sit the window in the rough opening, make sure it is level, and nail or screw that flange to the exterior walls. Done. In my case, we could simply nail that flange onto the plywood exterior, wrap everything with house wrap, nail trim boards around the windows, and then nail on our siding of choice, bumping it up against that trim.

For a house with existing siding, you would just need to work around that, cutting it back or removing some of it, or just pulling off the trim boards and replacing them afterward.

The problem on houses like mine is that those window flanges are nailed right onto the studs, and then the T1-11 exterior plywood goes on and covers them up. That meant we had to cut off a strip of that plywood around each window to access those flanges and remove the windows.

A word about choosing windows. We were getting rid of the worst possible windows, made of aluminum, another cheap signature of the era of disco and polyester. Terrible looks and terrible energy efficiency. The usual choice these days is vinyl windows, which used to be considered cheap but have gotten way better of late, with most offering the Energy Star rating. That said I went with Marvin’s Integrity windows, for a variety of good reasons. Made of a special type of fiberglass, they offer the best longterm value on the market.

Building experts agree that Marvin’s fiberglass is super-energy efficient and super durable, meaning it won’t warp or crack like vinyl sometimes does. Also, it expands and contracts very little, just like the glass inside the frames, meaning the seals all around that glass will not fail. And last, its mitered corners are crisp and clean-looking, unlike those melty miters on vinyl windows. Last the Marvin Integrity windows are available in a range of colors, applied in a thick fiberglass layer that promises a lifetime of service.

You could go even higher end, choosing windows clad with wood on the inside, but I’ve got plenty of wood inside my house, and I like the clean looks of the fiberglass interior.

Whichever windows you choose, the KEY to a good installation is making sure the windows are level and square, so they will operate smoothly, and then making sure the window is flashed correctly. Flashing is the overlapping layers of metal, plastic, or rubberized material that go all around the window, under your siding, to catch any water that gets under there, and send it down over the house wrap instead of letting it inside the window frame to cause rot and damage.

Anyway, check out the following pics to see the whole process. Next up will be applying the window trim and all the siding. I’ll do a whole blog to explain our choices on that.

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The first step is to pull out all the interior trim so you can measure the rough openings and buy the right-size windows. We have a lot of wide windows, so we went with sideways sliders.
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Next you need to get access to the nailing flanges on the outside of the windows. On my house, which just has a single layer of painted plywood on it, that meant removing a strip of that plywood all around. On a house with siding, you might need to remove the trim boards around the windows, or some of the siding.
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Once the guys could get at the flanges, they pulled all the nails and the windows came right out.
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To make a level surface for attaching the new windows, we had to nail on strips all around to fill those gaps we created.
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This is when the flashing happens, one of the most CRITICAL steps. It starts at the rough window sill, where an adhesive rubberized material is applied.
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Then, overlapping that bottom piece, the side pieces go on. The idea is the same as it is with shingles: You overlap them so they shed water as it drips down.
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Where he had to cut the material to get it into the inside corners, the contractor applied extra little adhesive pieces to cover the tiny gap.
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Now the new windows could slide right in! That extra flashing at the top will get overlapped by the house wrap, which will cover all the walls later and complete the water-shedding envelope. Trim and siding will come after that.
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Once the windows were shimmed level in their opening, and we made sure they slid and closed easily (a good check for squareness), the guys just drove screws through the flanges and the window was locked in place for life.
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Marvin even supplies little adhesive corners to cover the gaps where the nailing flanges fold outward and create a tiny gap. As I said, the house wrap is coming up next, which will cover all the edges of the window and ensure that water sheds downward not inward.

The joy of a good dovetail jig

Like a lot of woodworkers, I’ve cut dovetails all sorts of ways, slowly by hand with a saw and chisel and a bit quicker by machine with an angled saw blade and a dado set. Till now I’ve thought of dovetail jigs as a compromise: offering quick but clunky-looking results, due to a big fat router bit making the cuts. Also, I had heard they have steep learning curves with lots of fussing. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.

I just finished a big review of dovetail jigs for the next issue of Fine Woodworking magazine, and I’m here to say that the best are really amazing. I can’t give away the winners, but I can show you how these things work, and basically why they are so awesome.

Next week, I’ll show you a cool project you can build with your new dovetail jig, or any dovetail method for that matter.

So as most of you know, there are two basic kinds of dovetails, through-dovetails and half-blind dovetails (used often for drawer fronts, as you can only see the dovetails on one side of the joint). These jigs can cut both in a variety of ways. And thanks to skinnier router bits and variable spacing, the joints they make look very close to hand-cut. In fact, only the purists will know the difference.

What you get in return though is a much faster, more foolproof process. If you’ve ever struggled to make this demanding joint, or been too intimidated to try, a dovetail jig is for you. Here’s how they work, and some of the many advantages.

It starts with how easy they are to set up and use. For a start, they all use a template with fingers on it to guide a bushing that attaches to the bottom of your router base, like this:

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The bushing rides the template fingers and the bit sticks through the bushing to reach down to the wood below.

Let’s say you are going to cut through-dovetails. You always cut these one part at a time on a dovetail jig, first the tails with a dovetail-shaped bit and then the pins board with a straight bit. Both boards attach to the jig vertically.

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On this Leigh jig, the fingers slide and lock in any position, meaning you can vary the spacing of the tails for a hand-cut look. Plus you’ll notice the spaces between the tails are pretty skinny, not really clunky at all.
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Then you just load the other board in the jig and flip the template over to cut perfect pins. Most of these jigs have awesome guidelines built in to help you nail the setup on the first try. 
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Using the tapered fingers on the other side of the template, and a straight bit in the router, you cut the pins, fast and foolproof.
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Imagine getting a fit like this, on stacks of parts. You can go nuts with dovetails!

Half-blind dovetails are different. What’s cool here is that you load both sides of the joint in the jig at once and cut everything in one pass, with a single bit and a single setup.

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The Porter-Cable jig has a deep groove on the template that you just line up with the junction between the two boards. Then you are ready to cut.
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Note how the two boards are offset so you can cut both at once, but then the tabs (tails) on one will line up with the little pockets (spaces between the pins) on the other. Check it out…
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This is how the two parts of the joint fit together.
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A few taps with a rubber mallet…
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… perfection in minutes.

This is just a small taste of what these jigs can do. For the whole story, plus great jigs for every budget, pick up the July/August issue of Fine Woodworking, on newsstands in early June.

 

Welding, pt. 2: Adding wood to metal

I worked with an expert welder for an upcoming article for Woodcraft magazine, titled, “Welding for Woodworkers.” And that’s what I covered in my first blog. Now my part kicks in: adding a wood top to our steel frame, along with some finishing touches for the overall table.

Just as I thought, dealing with metal is simple compared to wood. Abrasive pads remove the last traces of high heat, plus any scratches, and a coat of paste wax is all the finish you need, evening out the sheen and providing a bit of protection from finger grease and corrosion. There are awesome plugs that you just bang down into the ends of the steel-tube legs with a rubber mallet, and they come threaded for adjustable feet.

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As for adding a wood top, that’s woodworking, and takes a bit more time. I went with Port Orford cedar, a hard cedar that grows only in the Pacific Northwest. It’s got nice organic character that goes well with the steel below.

I milled up two thick pieces to make a 1-1/2-in.-thick top, to match the thickness of the steel frame parts. Than I added a little rabbet around the bottom edge to create a thin shadow line that separates wood and steel.

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After prepping the surfaces, putting a nice roundover on all the edges, and adding a few coats of polyurethane, attaching the wood top was a breeze. Kari Merkl had already drilled holes through the upper frame pieces before welding the frame together, so now I just drove long screws through those into the top. The cedar is pretty stable but there is enough wiggle room in the screw holes to allow for any seasonal wood movement.

That’s it, a mixed-media table in the modern style! For the whole story, including a variety of different pieces made with similar techniques, see my upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine.

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Welding is easier than you think, pt. 1

I’ve been spending time with a local welder, Kari Merkl, working on an article for Woodcraft magazine, called “Welding for Woodworkers,” and I’m psyched to see how easy and affordable it is to get into the craft. Today’s small, user-friendly welders can join all sorts of steel parts, and then who knows what you might build: sleek furniture, junkyard sculpture, a tiny house or a tricked-out trailer.

I haven’t welded anything since a brief intro back in trade school 30 years ago, but I’ve always wanted to add welding to my arsenal. So I jumped at the chance to find a local expert and see what it takes to get started. Kari has been welding professionally for 16 years and teaching for 6, which makes her uniquely suited to break it down for beginners like me.

Watch Woodcraft mag for the full story, but here’s a taste of how easy and fun welding can be. I’ll do the basics first, then talk about adding wood parts in a later post. But keep following this blog because I plan to get my own rig and start building stuff with steel. If you’ve already beat me to it, let me know!

So welder first. You’ll be welding mild steel, specifically “cold-rolled,” which comes in lots of tubes and shapes with good dimensional accuracy and a nice, smooth finish. Other metals are harder to held and more of a next-level thing. But mild steel can do a ton of stuff, and be painted, power-coated or just protected with wax.

So for mild steel, MIG welding is the answer, at least for most of you. It’s the best combo of affordability, portability, affordability, and short learning curve. MIG stands for Metal Inert Gas, which just means the welding gun directs a stream of argon gas (with some CO2) into the welding zone to shield it from impurities in the air. Makes for much cleaner welds. But MIG is just a form of wire-fed arc welding, in which the work is grounded and then the welding wire touches the work, completing the circuit and instantly heating the wire and surrounding steel into a molten state, so it can bond together in a little puddle.

So there is a simpler wire-fed method, which forgoes the gas for flux instead. The flux is in the core of the welding wire, and creates a little shielding plume when heated. The weld isn’t quite as clean as MIG can do, but it’s still very effective.

Bottom line, you can get a gasless wire-feed welder for under $300 and for another $150 or so you can have a unit that does MIG, too! Here’s a great one that does both, from a very reputable company, Hobart.

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Voltage and the feed rate are controlled separately, as they should be, and the unit comes with the spool gun (with a few extra tips), some flux-core wire, and the grounding clamp–everything you need for flux-core-wire welding. If you add the tank of argon gas at some point, you can do MIG.

You will also need to prep your shop environment. If you can’t work in a separate room with nothing flammable for about 12 feet in every direction, you can shield the welding area with plastic welding curtains, as Kari is doing here:

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You’ll also notice the grounding clamp attached to a steel table, which in turn electrifies the workpieces being welded. You can also attach the clamp to the parts themselves, if you are welding on a concrete floor for example, or just put a steel plate atop your woodworking bench. The solid wood is spark proof too, but be sure there is no sawdust in sight or anything flammable, including open trash cans. And hang up those shielding curtains where needed!

You’ll also need some safety gear, like Kari has on, all thick cotton or leather, with a welding helmet.

Other than some practice and basic know-how, this is all that stands between you and welding! OK, you do need some way to cut metal, and your woodworking tools won’t work. Your wood-cutting bandsaw is way to fast for metal. So you’ll need a small metal cutoff saw (just over $100) or a horizontal bandsaw ($300-$400 new) designed for cutting metal.

Now to the basic technique. First of all, welding introduces tension and a lot of heat, so you need to distribute that heat and tension as you go or you will distort the assembly you are …assembling.

Basically, you get the parts squared up and clamped in place (there are cool welding clamps of this, or you can use any steel-jawed woodworking clamps) and then you first just make small tack welds at all the joints, moving systematically sound the assembly. Then you return to point A to make full welds. This balances the forces as you go, and lets the heat dissipate in each spot before you return.

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Mark used some cool magnet clamps to hold the parts in place squarely while she tacked all the joints together. This leg assembly got joined later to another one to complete the table base.
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You work your way around the assembly tacking one area at a time.
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Then you return to each area to do the full welds. This equalizes all the forces in the assembly as you go, and lets heat dissipate.

As for technique, it’s best to take a class and do lots of practice but here are the basics: you cut off the wire at about 1/4 in. away from the tip of the gun, tilt the gun about 60 degrees to the surface and pull it along ahead of the weld, trying to keep the tip of the gun about 1/8 in. off the surface. The tilted gun lets you see the weld area as you work.

 

You also need to swirl the tip of the gun as you go to create a wide, strong bead. Welding is a dance of sorts, between voltage, wire feed rate, and your own motion, as you move the molten puddle down the weld, and that dance takes practice. But you can do it!

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This is the angle and height you should keep the spool gun at, and this is about how wide a good weld should be. You can see the swirling action in the weld.
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A wire brush cleans say the slag off the weld, and 3M pads can do the rest of the polishing. A couple coats of paste wax completes the job. Then the frame is done!

Kari says the hardest part for beginners is learning to see the entire weld as you work, training your brain to see a bigger circle through the lens in the white light, and also just getting comfortable with the sparks, sound, and light. But she gets beginners to nirvana all the time, so you can do it too.

 

After spending a couple days shooting photos at her studio, I’m positive I can weld. Still I’m going to one of her classes this weekend to try it for real.

Stay tuned for part two, where I show some of the finishing touches to a welded frame, and how to add wood to it to make a nice coffee table.

Screw-on legs will turn anything into a table

The traditional way to add legs to a table is first to connect the tops of legs to a series of rails, creating a separate base. The top then attaches to that. That type of base demands high-skill joints like mortises and tenons to connect everything. Lucky for us, there are much easier answers these days.

A variety of companies now sell self-supporting legs that simply screw onto any top you have, be it a wood slab, butcher block, old door, old workbench top or whatever. In my book for beginners, “Build Stuff with Wood,” due out next fall, I show four of these leg systems. Here they are, attached to a variety of tops.

You can imagine the rest of the possibilities, I’m sure. By the way, to find out how I surfaced and finished the beautiful walnut slab that I used for two of these tables, go here.

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Ikea sells legs like these for $16 a set! You can buy them in four colors. I harvested mine from a beat-up old Ikea desk we had.
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I made a thick top by screwing and gluing together two pieces of plywood, trimming the edges, and rounding them with a router, and then screwing on my Ikea legs. Quick and easy! By the way, I finished this tabletop with spar varnish to stand up to the elements.
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The table came out great. Go here for the full how-to.
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I matched the umbrella to the chairs and table legs to create this outdoor oasis.
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These mid-century modern hairpin legs from Rockler.com are not cheap, but they are gorgeous. You can get a two-wire or three-wire version in various lengths and finishes. 
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Check out the finished desk. To find out how I surfaced and finished that gorgeous walnut slab, go here.
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Here is another amazing screw-on Mid-Century Modern leg set, from tablelegs.com. You buy the cleats and legs separately and they are unfinished. These are walnut, coffee table size legs, but they come in all different sizes and woods. I applied an oil-based polyurethane finish.
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Be sure to choose cleats that are shorter than your tabletop is wide. The cleats and legs simply screw on.
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This coffee table is just as nice as the desk. Wish I could have kept it this way but we needed the desk more.
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And last but not least is this plumbing pipe hardware, which I used to make a beautiful coffee table.
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Find out more about this project here.