A previous post reminded me on one of my earliest furniture projects. A
I was fresh out of grad school, gainfully employed with an honest-to-gawd
salary and about to furnish my first apartment. Décor was very much of the
brick-and-board school . It occurred to me that I could make a very simple
(but striking) coffee table out of two untreated railroad ties. If memory
serves, the dimension of a tie was 6-in x 9-in x 9 feet. All it would take
would be 6 cuts: 4 to lop of a set of 6-inch pieces for the feet, 2 for the
crossbars and the remainder would be the body of the table. Simple. No
fasteners. Gravity would hold it together.
I found a supplier of ties in the yellow pages. They quoted me a price of
$5.50 per tie (this was 1970). Hey - - I could afford $11. for a coffee
I rented a pick-up ($20 per day) and during my lunch hour headed for the
railroad tie boutique to collect (what was now ) a $31 coffee table. At the
tie place, I discovered a couple of things: 1) I couldn't load my own ties.
It had to be done by a union worker; 2) the union didn't work during the
lunch hour, and 3) all the really good ties were contracted to the Union
Pacific. The ones they were selling me were slightly warped. I headed
back, turned in the pickup at the rental place and learned that there was
also a 25 cent per mile charge. Now my table had become a $36 dollar item.
Several days later, I slipped out of the office early, phoned ahead to be
sure the Union was ready for me, rented a truck and picked up my $60 dollar
Over the weekend, I lugged the ties to the home of a friend who owned a
table saw. It took a few hours, but eventually it sunk in that the average
table saw, owned by the average compliant friend is NOT engineered to make
precision cuts (or any other sort of cuts for that matter) on a 100 lb tie
horsed onto the table and hand fed into the blade. The new blade cost $12.
It took most of Sunday, but eventually all six cuts were performed with a
hand bucksaw purchased ($8) at the local hardware store. The cuts wandered
all over the place and the ends weren't square, but what was I supposed to
expect for an $80 coffee table.
Since the ties were slightly warped, all components now had small, but
noticeable skew. No problem. I rented a belt sander ($9/dy). The guy at
the rental place asked me now many belts I wanted. I didn't have any idea.
He recommended that I take a box and return the un-used ones. It's a
heckuva lot faster to sand with a new belt, so I changed belts frequently.
Ten belts. Four bucks a belt. At $129 it still looked like a pile of
unpainted railroad ties. Another friend clued me in to Watco Danish Rubbing
Oil. I bought a can. It cost slightly more (per unit volume) than the
brand of bourbon that I was drinking (in my formative years). Ten dollars
for a can of the stuff. I spread out a drop cloth, laid out one of the
longer pieces and drizzled a little of the oil onto the surface of the tie.
SLURP (Ross Perot's enormous sucking sound). The stuff disappeared into the
wood like piss into a snow bank. It took two more cans to make any
noticeable difference in the appearance. So, at $159, the end was in sight.
Now all it needed was a glass top (1/4 inch, smoked glass, rounded edges)
My male friends all agreed that my $186 coffee table was an item of superb
design and construction. My female acquaintances seemed to feel otherwise.
"Butt-ugly" is the term that they seemed to favor. Women, as a group,
don't appreciate fine craftsmanship.