Desktop MAX Project: A Tiny Table for a Tiny House

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Think about the tools that you use to make things in your daily life: a toaster, a hammer, a knife. Now place these tools on an imaginary graph where one axis describes the ease of use of the tool and the other describes its capability. I find that most tools in my life that rank high in ease of use rank low in capability—I’ve never failed to toast a piece of bread in my toaster yet try as I might, I’ll never be able to use it to bake a loaf of bread or a flaky croissant. On the other hand, after years of practice I’m still unable to wield my chef’s knife with the dexterity of a professional chef—this is the opposite end of the spectrum.

The best tools in my life are the ones that I can pick up easily and get results quickly, but as I learn to better use the tool, my capability expands and my results get better and better. I was considering this as I went into the shop this past weekend to try building a piece of furniture for a friend—a piece that had a lot of features that I had no idea how to properly design, much less had ever attempted before.

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently visiting a friend who lives across town. She lives in a tiny cabin behind the house of her son and his family and has gotten around in a wheelchair ever since having Polio when she was younger. She’d wanted my advice on a backup heating system in case a winter storm knocked out the power in Durham (something we were at no risk of during our downright balmy December!). The challenge was that nearly every inch of the 300 square foot cabin was taken up with beds and tables and chairs that accommodated friends and grandchildren that frequently visited—leaving no room for a propane heater.

With the help of another friend, we spent an afternoon taking away, adding, and moving furniture in an exercise in spatial reasoning that would make a Tetris champion sweat. At the end of it all, we concluded that in order to add the propane heater, there was not enough space for her existing kitchen table. She then started to describe the substitute table that she wanted me to go find at a thrift store: “No deeper than the computer desk, long enough to seat four friends, but not so long that I can’t get by to get to my bed; drawers for hiding things that my infant grandson shouldn’t be grabbing; enough space to fit my wheelchair under the table.” I quickly realized that this table likely didn’t exist anywhere in Durham.

Having taken mental notes of the requirements I went to work on a design. I recalled a table that I’d seen in a children’s furniture store. It was a short table with two drop-leaf ends that could be folded up and tucked into the corner when it wasn’t being used for coloring. I took the drop-leaf idea and decided to add stability by substituting the normal pull out support with a swing out table leg.

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Not being an experienced furniture builder I tried to stick with what I knew—dovetails are pretty but I’ve yet to master that part of VCarve so I made simple box joints, planning to glue or screw them together if the fit wasn’t perfect. I wasn’t quite sure how to design a properly fitting drawer with metal slides so I decided to just cut a few plastic bars that would act as simple slides for the drawers to rest on.

Because the edges of my parts would be showing I didn’t want to use plywood—I selected a pretty, glued up spruce plank from the hardware store. The 2’ x 4’ sheets were a perfect size to fit on the Desktop MAX, leaving just a little bit hanging over one end. After a few test cuts I realized that I needed to re-orient some of the parts to take advantage of the stronger direction of the grain.

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Despite my inexperience, after a few mistakes and a few hours I had a nearly complete table. I took it home to my garage to stain and seal the wood; choosing a light walnut color that matched the hardwood floor in the cabin. I sanded the sharp edges and made little adjustments to my drawer slides until the whole thing moved smoothly and felt stable.

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Finally, on New Years’ Day, the humidity vanished and a minor cold snap set in. I went over to my friend’s house to check on her new heater and make sure that it was keeping her warm enough. I brought over the new table as a surprise, hoping to at least give her a place to put her toaster for the time being. She was ecstatic! The table fit right into the space in front of the bed, leaving a lane just big enough to maneuver around in a wheelchair. We oriented it so that the second leaf could be lifted when her grandchildren came by to read with her later that day.

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It was a great project for me over the holidays; I got to help a friend and I learned so many new things while also getting the results that I’d hoped for. The next time that I set out to design a table I’ll be looking at it from a new vantage point and no doubt create something even better. This is what I love about the gentle learning curve with CNC tools, the cost for mistakes is low—in this case, just a couple more boards from the hardware store. Not just that, but with each project I complete, a new world of ideas is opened up to me.

Contributed by Brian Owen

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