1st project for a total noob...

On 29 Nov 2006 19:04:57 -0800, " snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com"

Hi Peter-
They're not particularly stupid questions, everyone was new at this at one time.
Here's another idea for you based on the tools you've got-
Case sides are often made from hardwood ply for just the reason you've noted. They also expand and contract less with changes in humidity. But to avoid a cheap IKEA-style particle board look, it's nice to use floating panels in frames. This was developed (as I understand it) to allow glued-up solid wood panels to expand and contract without breaking the wood around them, but it ends up being a pleasing look that is often used in furniture even though the use of plywood reduces the need for it.
I'll try to decribe how to make them with what you've got, and hopefully that will be enough to help you visualise what I'm describing- I'm sure you've seen it before somewhere, it's very common.
Get your plywood, and some hardwood planks- the planks can be narrow, or even pre-cut to a specific width, like 1.5 or 2" (which may be the way to go, as you said you do not have a tablesaw.) Many lumberyards will rip them for you from wider stock for a fairly inexpensive hourly rate.
Once you've got your planks, you can start making the frame. Get a straight router bit that is the same width as your plywood is thick (and with this application, your plywood can be a thin as 1/4"- the mechanical joints are in the frame). Use your router to route a groove (called a dado) in the edge of your planks. If you want them centered on the plank, there is an easy way to do that- draw a line on your router's baseplate that crosses directly over the center of the bit, and drill two holes that are the same distance from the center on either side. Put a pin in each hole, set the router on the edge of the plank, and then turn it so that one pin is touching each face of the plank. Plunge your bit about 1/4" deep, then route along the length, keeping the pins touching the faces of the plank. This will keep the bit centered, and prevent the router from wandering off-course and making a wavy line. If you want a dado deeper than 1/4", just keep making more passes, removing a little more material each time- don't try to do it all in one shot.
Once all your frame pieces are dadoed, you need to decide what kind of joinery you're going to use to hold it together. Miters are easy with that radial arm saw of yours, but are not that strong. Simple butt joints are pretty weak as well, but have the benefit of being really easy to make. Arguably the best joint to use is a mortise and tenon, but they take a bit of practice to get right. Basically, you just make a square hole in the edge of one piece, and a square peg on the end of the other, then slide them together. Other things to try out are a half-lap joint, which looks like a butt joint or a mortise and tenon joint, but glues the two faces together and is much stronger than a butt joint- but not as strong as a mortise and tenon. You could also make a splined miter, where you cut the miter, then make a dado on each of the angled cuts, and glue in a thin strip of wood- that will make a miter joint much tougher, or sink screws into the joint and cover the heads with a short piece of dowel glued in place. It's your first project, so try not to make it too complicated right off the bat- just do what seems right to you, and you'll discover what you like quickly enough.
Once you've got that figured out, cut the frame pieces out of the planks that you made the dadoes in. Make sure that when the pieces of the frame are assembled, the dado will be facing in towards the center. Put the frame together unglued, and measure the distance from the bottom of your dado to the bottom of the dado across from it, then subtract a sixteenth. Do that for both dimentions, then cut your plywood to that size. Glue up three pieces of the frame, slide in the plywood, and then glue in the fourth. Getting a regular tie-down rachet strap like you'd use on a trailer makes clamping frames very easy- put your glue on all the joints, (note- you should not be putting glue in the dadoes that the panel sits in, so that if the panel expands or contracts, it does not break the frame) assemble by hand, then wrap the strap around the outside and ratchet it down. This works particularly well with miter joints.
Do that for each of your sides, then you can glue the sides together. Here, a simple butt joint will be fine- because it is not *really* a butt joint- it's an edge-grain to face-grain joint that will be stronger than the wood itself once glued.
The top is a little different- you can use plywood, of course, and then glue hardwood all the way around, with miters in the corners. When you attach it, allow for wood movement- an easy way to do this is with L-brackets that attach to the inside of the frame walls, and under the bottom of the table with screws. Make sure that the brackets have a slot rather than a simple hole on the leg that is attaching to the top.
Hope this helps- I know it's a lot to read through, but woodworking can be a complicated business until you've got a few projects under your belt.
Have fun!
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