How to Build a Japanese Style Coffee Table

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In 1944, Isamu Noguchi designed the coffee table that carries his name to this day. Little did he know that it would go on to become a masterpiece in Japanese-style, coffee tables. You may not have the wood-sculpting skills of Noguchi, but if you have some basic woodworking experience and if you are up for the challenge, you could build and capture the essence of the original. Here’s how to build a Japanese style coffee table.

Things You'll Need

  • 2 inch thick walnut, cherry or birch wood
  • 3/4 inch thick plate glass (50 inches by 36 inches)
  • 3/4 inch dowel rod
  • Drill with bit to match dowel
  • Table saw
  • Sanding and finishing materials
  • Cut and shape the glass. Have your plate glass cut in a triangular shape with finished edges. One side may be about 50 inches, while the other two sides may be 40 inches and 36 inches, respectively.

  • Prepare two pieces of wood, both approximately 1 3/4 inch, with a length of about 36 inches and a height of 16 inches each. Then join the base using an extremely sharp drill bit for the pivot pin assembly and a matching hardwood dowel.

  • Cut and shape the two wood bases into identical, inverted canoe shapes, each including tapered ‘sterns’ (tall ends) approximately 15 inches when finished. The other two ‘bows’ (short ends) should be 7 1/2 inches high and notched on the outer curves, precisely at the breaks.

  • Dowel holes will now need to be drilled exactly at the spot where the curve breaks and goes down on the shorter ends. Attach the two wood pieces of the base together by inserting a piece of dowel, (approximately 2 inches to 3 inches) to secure the pieces. Make sure that the long edge is down while the other is inverted with its flat side up.

  • First spread the two wood bases apart, approximately, to a 70 to 80 degree angle. If your pivot assembly is precise, this should be easy. Now place the finished triangular glass on top of the spread wood bases. Make sure you check that the table top is level. If it isn’t, the two bases are not identical and may need to be adjusted. To do this, sand down the two points of the ‘stern’ ends, or where the two pieces meet. In this way, the two ‘stern’ ends and the joined ends will have the same height. Check the table top once again using a carpenter’s level.

  • Apply finishing touches to the wood. Use a clear varnish or quality ebony lacquer for the wood bases after fine-sanding them. Finally, place the glass on top of the spread wood bases. Your Japanese style ‘Noguchi’ coffee table is now complete.

Tips & Warnings

  • Keep a few spare pivot pins and dowels, in case the ones you’ve fitted need to be replaced.
  • Take a close look at an original ‘Noguchi’ coffee table. It is produced under license by the Herman Miller, company. This will give you a better idea of its design, before you commence work.
  • Be careful when using the table saw and drill. Use appropriate safety items.

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