Build your own Puzzle Coffee Table!

I’m going to do something a little different than I normally do for my tutorials: I am going to show you how to build one of my best selling items! About a year ago, a friend asked me if I could build a puzzle table that would have a fold open top and a few drawers, based on some inspiration she’d seen from other puzzle boards, easels, and tables. This being DIB, I said “Yes! But, I am going to do it better.” Properly built tabletops (NOT held together with pocket screws), mortise and tenon joinery, and inlaid, continuous grain drawers instead of partial overlay drawers.

This is my fourth or fifth table build, and I decided to partner with Osborne Wood Products again on this. Why? Well, the tapering process on the legs can be intimidating (and downright dangerous) if not done correctly when you build your own. And, frankly, Osborne has the same two-sided taper legs I made myself, plus about two dozen other options, so the design options are endless.

(As always, Osborne paid me nothing. They sent me the legs for free, but I discounted the price of the table accordingly to the customer so I didn’t profit from that freebie. This is just an honest, helpful tutorial!)

This entire project can be built with 4/4 lumber (if you’re buying the legs from Osborne) and half a sheet of pre-finished, 1/2″ plywood. I’ll describe the hinges and hardware I use, and post links at the bottom.

If you need more detail than this blog provides, you can buy a copy of the detailed, measured drawings here. If you do, read the disclaimer on the bottom of the page regarding using OWP legs instead of shop-made ones.

My standard puzzle table is square, and the measurements are 35.5″x35.5″x18.75″ tall. Since the legs are 18″ tall, you want each half of the top to be slightly narrower so that, when it folds over, it will clear the floor. Hence, the half inch smaller dimension than a 36″ square. You can adjust these dimensions as much as you want, but don’t make the width more than 35.5, otherwise it won’t fold open properly (without also adjusting the height).

The aprons will be 4″ tall when finished, but we want to start by ripping down 3/4″ thick lumber to 4.25″ wide and about 34″ long. I chose red oak here, as one of the more affordable options, but Osborne has almost a dozen different wood choices across all of their leg options.

The extra 1/4″ allows us to rip out the drawer faces to create “continuous grain” drawers. Set the rip fence on your table saw to make a one inch cut. Cut one side of that board. Then, flip the piece to cut 1″ off the opposite edge. This will leave you with three pieces; a 2″ piece sandwiched between two 1″ pieces. Where’d the other 1/4″ go? The saw blade’s kerf is 1/8″ thick, so it is now in your dust collector!

The drawers will each be 11 inches wide. Carefully mark each drawer. I like to mark the center and drawer lines on all three pieces of the apron. This way, when I reassemble everything, I know exactly how to put it back together to make the grain match.

Use biscuits to align the pieces, if you’d like, but it’s not wholly necessary. It just helps with these small pieces.

This next step is very important for a clean fitting drawer. Because you made two cuts to cut the drawer piece out, your drawer face is actually 1/4″ too narrow if you glued everything back together as it was. To accomodate, glue the center piece in first and clamp it:

Next, put the drawer faces in the slots (No glue!!) and scoot them toward the center until you get about a 1/16th inch gap. Now, take the two side/middle pieces, scoot them in until you get the same gap.

You’ll notice that the line on the left (the original layout mark before cutting) is now shifted about a quarter inch right on the center piece.

Each side apron of the table, then, will be 28.5″ long. Add 2″ to this measurement so you can put a 1″ tenon on each side of the apron later. Measure equally off your center line to mark where your board should be cross-cut.

Now, let’s talk mortises. For the table hinges to function properly, the aprons must be flush with the legs. Since we have 3/4″ legs, we will make a 3/8″ mortise and start it 3/16th’s of an inch off the edge of the leg. It should start 0.75″ from the top, and be 2.5″ long. My written plans call for a 1/2″ shoulder on the tenons and mortises instead of 3/4″. It’s fairly arbitrary. Do two adjacent sides on all four legs. You can look back at my King Bed project for instructions on hand cutting mortises, or either of my Lift top “wild” cherry side table for machine-cut mortise options.

(NOTE: With these legs, they were identical on all four sides, so the mortises could be on any two adjacent sides. If you get something like a two sided taper, then you’ll have to make sure you carefully choose which edges receive mortises)

On each apron, make that 1″ tenon that is 3/8″ wide and fits the mortise.

The next step is one of my secrets, and it helps make a really quality piece of furniture without using pocket screws to attach the recess. Make a 1/2″ dado, 3/8″ from what will be the top of each apron. This leaves a 3/8 inch lip to support the plywood, a 3/8″ recess for the puzzle to be concealed within, and makes for a clean look.

Before moving on to the next step, glue up a table top. I always make mine a little large, say 40″ square. That gives me plenty of room to true it up and dimension it. Just glue the edges and clamp.

While the top is setting up, start staining and finishing the legs. The sanding on these was tedious; all by hand in the little grooves.

I always sand and finish before assembly on these tables. There are a lot of tight spaces, and it will be hard to remove glue squeeze out from them. Better to apply poly, which the glue won’t stick to, then glue everything together.

Take your pre-finished plywood, and cut it to fit the space PLUS an extra amount for however deep your dados are (1/4″ in my cases). Put glue in the grooves, mortises, on the tenons and clamp the whole thing together like crazy, making sure to check for square.

I won’t lie, this is really tough to make perfect. I’ve tried about 4 different ways to get it so there aren’t any gaps around the legs (which don’t have dados and just butt together) but it’s never come close to perfect. The solution I’ve come up with is to rip 3/8″x3/8″ stock, put a roundover on it, and place it in those corners to cover the gaps.

The only downside to these Osborne legs is they ALL have the lathe chuck marks on them. I always forget to chop that 1/4″ off though, which is my fault,

Now that the top is dry, square up one edge and then crosscut it halfway down the middle (17.75″ in this table’s case). It’s VERY important that your folding joint, where the two pieces meet, runs perpendicular to the boards. Wood doesn’t expand or contract along the length of the grain, so your seam will remain snug throughout the seasons.

Take the 18″ piece, being careful to keep track of the top, and flip it over; set aside. Take the other piece and, using a router, place a roundover with a slight shoulder on it (right side below). We’re going to use what’s called a “rule joint” to provide a nice seam that should help keep dust and grime out of the recessed area.

On the BOTTOM of the piece you set aside, make a cove cut with your router to match the roundover. Make sure the cove bit matches the roundover bit you started with. Start at a cut you know is not big enough, then sneak up on it to get the fit just right. When you flip this piece over, it should match the roundover.

I know, ugly tear-out. Even using shallow passes, my cove bit did some damage. Time to get a newer, sharper one.

On the piece with the roundover, which should be longer than 17.5″, measure 17.5″ off the SHOULDER of the roundover on the top, and cross-cut there. Now, once everything’s cut, stain and finish as you please.

Before attaching the top, I find it’s easier to fit the drawers. Once the top is on, it gets quite heavy. Start by flipping the table over, cutting some slightly shallow plywood pieces, and glue and nail in some corner supports. This helps keep the legs square, and adds more support to the top.

Now, using 13″ long strips of 3/4″ plywood, we want to make rails for the drawer slides. Since it’s a ply-to-ply connection, pocket screws are great here. Apply glue to an edge, make sure they are square to the drawer opening and flush against the edge, and screw them down.

There are about 1,000 ways to make drawers, and we’ve made them before on the Nightstand build. For these, I went with “false fronts.” Basically, the drawer is a prefinished plywood box, and the drawer faces we cut out in the beginning attach to the box. I go with 12″ deep drawers, as 12″ slides are abundant and cheap.

Simple rabbets for the drawer connections, with a 1/4″ groove to accept a plywood bottom. If you want, you can use your 1/2″ ply to save on costs.

When you make the drawers, measure them from each drawer face exactly. Even a 1/16″ size difference can make the drawers hard to fit. The slides screw into the rails, and then the drawers. Instructions on this step are abundant online!

The best way to attach the false front is to push the drawers all the way it, place the face in, dry fit, and use two pin nails to hold it in place. Pull the drawer out, clamp, and use two wood screws to attach the front.

I looked at about two dozen different kinds of hinges to see what would work, and there’s really only one option: gate or “strap hinges. Fold the hinge to 90 degrees, drill pilot holes, and screw in like below. Be careful, it’s easy to torque the screw heads off. I put two on each half of the table top, 6 inches off each side. I believe these strap hinges are 11″ long; the most important thing is that the gap from the corner to the first screw on each side must exceed 3/4”. I have hinge recommendations, below, in link form.

A spring loaded punch is really excellent for marking the pilot whole spots. Lining up all of the screw slots, or “clocking” them, adds an extra sign of craftsmanship.

I’ll be honest, I had a lot of concern about wood movement with these table tops. You’ve got a potential for some substantial movement perpendicular to the hinges, and I was worried that screwing down the top on hinges would constrict it and cause cracking.

So far, none of my tables have had that problem. I think it’s because the hinges have a bit of lateral slop to them which is allowing the wood to move more freely than I first worried.

Here’s the finished product! The only thing left is to crack open a puzzle and get going!

A version of my original plans in a natural finish

Product Links:

NONE OF THESE LINKS ARE AFFILIATE LINKS. I don’t receive any revenue, discounts, or other compensation for putting them here. These are just my honest-to-god top choices for this table, take it or leave it.

Legs for this table:

Hinges: (ask for a few extra screws, they heads can snap and are very difficult to find in stores)

Ring Pulls:

Notes on Plans:

If you buy my plans, they’re made for 2.25″ shop-made legs. Osborne Wood’s legs tend to be 3.5″. So, make the aprons each 1.25″ shorter than the plans specify. You can either subtract this from the shoulders around the doors (that’s what I did) or make each drawer 5/8 narrower. It’s your call.

The plywood will be smaller as well for the recess.

2 thoughts on “Build your own Puzzle Coffee Table!

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