Step 1: Overview
You can build this table with simple tools and basic skills. Get your wood and steel at a home center, and look for interesting tile at a local tile supplier. Ask to see a porcelain or stone tile (or a combination) that’ll withstand harsh weather conditions. Our table, with two sizes of stone tile, cost about one-fifth the cost of a store-bought table!
This tabletop is made from a plywood core wrapped in cement board, sealed with a paint-on membrane and then covered with ceramic tile and grout. The leg base is made from sturdy steel bars (from your home center or hardware store) that you bend (with the aid of a template and homemade jig) into pleasing curves. Then you drill and assemble them and finally, screw them to the tabletop.
Don’t worry if you didn’t pay attention during metal shop. We’ll show you a seat-of-the-pants method for bending the steel without the expensive metal shop tools that a pro would use. Figure on spending 10 to 12 hours over the course of a week to complete the project.
To help guide the process, we’ve broken the tasks down into daily steps. It accounts for time spent waiting for glue, mortar and sealer to dry so you can finish the project efficiently. In total, this project will take about 6 days.
Step 2: Make the bending jig, tabletop core and full-size leg template
Make the bending jig from a 16 x 36-in. sheet of 3/4-in. plywood and two rounded-over lengths of 2x4 as shown in Photo 1. Glue the 2x4s to the plywood and drive eight 2-in. screws through the bottom side of the plywood into each 2x4. Why so many screws? These chunks of 2x4 will be under a great deal of stress later as you bend the steel bars.
Next, make two plywood discs (Photo 2) from a 4 x 4-ft. sheet of 1/2-in. thick CDX plywood. There’s no need to buy fancy plywood for this because you’ll be covering all sides of it. If the plywood is a bit bowed, position the bows opposite to each other to cancel the warp when you screw them together.
While you’ve got your carpentry tools out, make a full-size template from a 12 x 20-in. section of 1/4-in. plywood or hardboard as shown in Figure A. Place marks along all four sides in 1-in. increments and then draw connecting lines across. Plot the points as shown in Figure A and then draw a smooth curve connecting the points.
Figure A: Leg template and strut detail
Figure A: Leg and Strut Details
Draw a full-size template for the legs on a piece of plywood using this scaled drawing as a guide. Drill bolt holes for the struts
Step 3: Shape the steel legs and mortar the cement board to the top
Mark the 36-in. steel bar every inch (up to 28 in.) as shown in Photo 4 with a permanent marker. You’ll cut off the remaining 8 in. later, but for now, you’ll need it for leverage while bending. Buy an extra piece in case one doesn’t turn out—the bending process can be tricky.
Slide the bar between the blocks, align the first mark with the center and pull the bar toward you. This first little bend is easy because you have a lot of mechanical advantage. Don’t be tempted to overbend; a tiny nudge at each mark adds up to a nice even curve.
When you get toward the last few marks of your bending, you may want to pull the bar from the bent side to get a bit more leverage. Check the work piece every fifth bend or so to see how it’s matching up with your template. You may need to stick the leg piece back into the jig and unbend portions to get the curve to match your template. Don’t let yourself get too bent out of shape trying to conform exactly to the template. Close is good enough.
Next, cut and bend the smaller 1/8-in. thick bars to make the struts as shown in Figure A. Be sure to drill them accurately to ensure that the struts hold the legs equally. Complete the leg assembly as shown in Photo 9.
The disc assembly you glued together the day before is now ready to cover with cement board. Be sure to smooth the outside curve of the plywood with a belt sander outfitted with a coarse belt.
A smooth, even curve here will give you a nice even edge to tile later. Next, lay the disc on a sheet of cement board, trace the shape using a carpenter’s pencil and then cut out the shapes with your jigsaw (Photo 10). You can cut this stuff with a standard jigsaw blade, but you’ll need about three blades to get through the circle. Instead, look for a special abrasive cutting blade for your jigsaw at your hardware store or home center.
Mix your thin-set mortar in a bucket to a toothpaste consistency, or if you’re a cook, think of a bowl of mashed potatoes. Then let it stand for about 10 minutes to start the chemical reaction. Trowel the mortar onto the wood disc and then comb it with a 1/4-in. notched trowel.
The trowel helps you get just the right amount of mortar and distribute it evenly. Press the cement board piece into the mortar and immediately screw it to the plywood disc (Photo 11). You can now cut the metal stucco lath (Photo 12) and apply it, then fill the lath with mortar. Let the mortar set up until the next day.
Step 4: Waterproof the disc and finalize your design
Knock the rough edges off the discs with a rasp and then hand-sand the edges with coarse sandpaper. Wipe off the dust and roll or brush on a coat of waterproofing membrane (available from home centers and tile suppliers).
The membrane will keep moisture from migrating into the disc and causing the core to swell and, down the road, to crack. Apply at least two coats, letting each coat dry. When I saw this stuff for the first time, I couldn’t believe that the mortar would stick to it once it dried. Well, it does work and really seals the surface.
While the membrane is drying (24 hours), lay out your tile design and make sure it works. Make a cardboard disc the same size as your coated disc and draw concentric circular guidelines onto it to help with your tile placement (Photo 16).
Now is the time to try design options. I found that a circular design that radiates evenly outward works best, but feel free to try anything. If you end up cutting tile, be sure to soften the sharp edge with a smoothing stone.
Step 5: Tile the table edge
Set your tabletop onto your workbench and then test the tile for coverage. I selected a stone tile for the sides that measured about 1-3/4 in. square. The tile covered the 1-1/2 in. thick side with enough to spare to align with the top tile.
You may have to shim the whole top slightly above the workbench or shim each tile with pieces of thin cardboard. Depending on the size of the tile, the tile can be lower than the bottom edge slightly or even up from the bottom a bit; neither variation from flush will be noticed on a finished table.
Mix the mortar and then butter the back of the tiles and press them into place (Photo 15).With a little planning, you can cover the edge using only full tile by adjusting the width of the joint. When you’ve worked your way around the entire edge, let the mortar set for 24 hours before tiling the top.
Step 6: Tile the top
Position your design close to the tabletop (Photo 16). Make guidelines on your tabletop with a permanent marker to help transfer the tile to the top accurately. Then set one section at a time to position the tile accurately.
I mixed up two smaller batches of mortar to complete the top so I wouldn’t have to hurry through the positioning process before the mortar set. Apply the mortar to only one-fourth of the top with your notched trowel and press the tile into place. Keep transferring tile and mixing new mortar as needed.
Keep the top of the tile surface clean and mortar free. After a few hours, check for mortar that may have oozed up above the tile surface. It’s easy to remove the mortar with a screwdriver while it’s in this “plastic state” before it sets hard.
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Step 7: Fasten the leg assembly to the table and grout the tabletop
Fasten the legs to the top as shown in Photo 17, making sure to adjust the leg pattern to complement the top. We positioned our leg assembly to align with the tile cross in the tabletop.
If your tile is porous, you’ll have to seal it before grouting. Since our tile was stone and had no glaze, we purchased a sealer, rolled it on the tile and let it dry before grouting. The sealer keeps the grout from hazing the stone surface. If you’re using glazed tile, you’ll be able to grout without sealing. Mix the grout just as you did the mortar.
Some grouts require a latex additive, so follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Push the grout into the spaces between the tile with a grout float and then wipe the top with a damp sponge several times to remove the excess grout and prevent hazing. Let the grout set and cure for a few days, then apply a sealer to the entire top to protect it.
One last note: You’ll need to paint the legs to protect them from rusting and you’ll also need to paint the wood leg braces. Remove the legs to do this. Paint the wood braces and then wipe the steel with mineral spirits and scuff it with steel wool to prepare the surface. Prime the steel and then paint it.
We used a patina kit to simulate an aged brass finish (available at hardware stores and home centers). This is a multi-step system that gives great results and is tough enough for outdoor use. Follow the product directions.