Geek Chic Gone? Build Your Own Gaming Table!

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Completed gaming tableThe gaming table news coming out in the past couple of weeks inspired me to finally post about my do-it-yourself gaming table, complete with claw feet! While not quick, easy, or cheap, this table was custom to my specific requirements, and is a piece of furniture that may last generations. TL;DR, if you just want to see the build pictures, check out my Flickr album.

What of this gaming table news?

If you’re reading this, you’re likely the type of person to have already heard that Geek Chic has announced the sad news that they are ceasing operations. Geek Chic set the standard for treasured geek gaming tables. While many competitors have cropped up, Geek Chic was still the pinnacle of the gaming table market.

Nothing compared to the Sultan as the centerpiece of a gaming room. While amazing heirloom-quality pieces of furniture, each gaming table cost thousands, with a Sultan averaging twenty to thirty thousand dollars! There are many quality alternatives such as Board Game TablesCarolina Game TablesGame On TablesRathskellers, to name a few from just a very cursory web search, and Wyrmwood, the maker of high end gaming accessories, is also jumping into the gaming table market.

While, sure, you can buy a quality gaming table from one of these many great options available, another option is to just build your own! There are many options for handmade as well, ranging from just felting and adding a gaming-vault top to an existing table or building a gaming table using cheap lumber. One forum poster even suggested buying an old pool table… comes with ready made drink holders!

When I decided to go with the DIY method for my gaming table, I looked into all of these options, but what I wanted was was, like a Geek Chic, an heirloom piece of furniture; something I could hand down to my geek kids; something that will see the spilled blood of many characters, played through real generations of gaming geeks!

Gaming Table Design Concepts

I’m more of an idea guy (a nice way of saying I lack any useful skills), so, I called on my much more talented brother for help. I showed him my table drawings, and similar tables that could be purchased and after some back-and-forth we came up with a some designs, and a plan. I would love to do a dining room game table, and that’ll be next, but to figure it all out and as a trial, we started with a coffee table.

I believe I purchased the lumber in August of 2016, and set the goal to surprise my family for Christmas. The table was finished under the wire, and set up for Christmas morning.

 

The requirements of my build were:

  • Comfortable height for gaming as a coffee table – Settled on 19-20″ for the surface
  • Internal gaming vault 4-6″ deep. I wanted most miniatures-type games, and terrain to be able to be covered. This depth seems to be way more than most gaming tables commercially available
  • 3′ x 4′ playing surface (the vault) to accomodate 12 1′ x 1′ terrain tiles I have from Pedion Modular Battlefields
  • Geek Chic style slot on the side for cup holders, dice trays, paper holders, etc
  • High-quality wood and build to last generations

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Check out my Flickr album for higher res images of the designs.

Talking about our designs, I was a little concerned that 3′ x 4′ was pretty huge for a coffee table. Luckily I have a room that does not get dwarfed by it. The reason I had to go so large was that I didn’t want gaps when the 1’x 1′ modular terrain prices were in, and 2′ x 3′ seemed too small. It worked out though, nicely filling the spot where it landed, as you can see in the title picture of this post.

The other concern was that 4-6 inches for vault depth is way deeper than most of the commercial tables, and I figured they likely had good reason for their chosen vault depth. The functional reason for my 4-6 inch depth though was that if I was going to use it to cover games I had still in progress, I wanted to be able to cover games without having to remove most of the taller miniatures or terrain. I also figured that if I found I wanted to usually be using a much shallower surface in the vault, I could make a felted insert to raise the floor of the vault to whatever level I wanted.

Other design considerations

  • How to get the boards covering the table out. Many Ideas were discussed; a stick to push through a hole to lift the first board; a hole to stick a finger through to lift the board; have it so that you can push down on one board and the other side would lift up. One of my favorite ideas and one I may utilize on my future dining table is a skeleton key and lock. For the coffee table, however, my brother came up with a lever that works well. You can see this later in the post.
  • At one point I sketched out a claw foot on one of the design pages and said, “wouldn’t it be cool …” and that then became a must-have addition to the table. I think this is what sets this custom table apart from most anything else I’ve seen, and was certainly the most fun part of the build.

What Materials and Equipment do You Need to Build a Gaming Table?

While you could easily do this at much less cost with cheaper wood from any home improvement store, I wanted quality and appealing wood. Again, I was seeking to make an heirloom piece of furniture. So I took my brother, the expert, to a quality exotic woods and hardwoods store, and spent a good deal of time settling on a type of wood. There were so many factors to consider, color, density, consistency in how it looked. I settled on cherry and after some calculations we purchased most of the material we’d need. This isn’t like Home Depot where you go in and buy a bunch of 2×6’s that are all the same size. Each piece is a different length, width, depth. Later, this took my brother’s skill to shape and size the boards we needed. I think I’ve learned enough to do this work on my own for the next table.

Shop for building table
Space is needed to build the table. Here’s my brother’s shop. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Image of wood and carving station.
Most of the wood used for the build is leaning against the wall. In the back left corner you can see the carving station. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Again, this is not a cheap-option. The wood alone was around $800, and while much cheaper than a few thousand dollar Geek Chic coffee table, there is also the need for the tools, a shop to build in, time, and of course skills. If you have all of that, then by all means, building your own table is the way to go. If you don’t, then the prices these companies charge are really quite reasonable.

Tools and Materials

Note, these are not the specific tools we used, but I linked to similar items for clarity (mainly affiliate links). Many of these items can be found used for less, and be sure to talk with your supplier, discussing your needs before buying any of this.

  • Table saw : $800 – $2500 – We had a 3 hp Grizzly
  • Table saw blades : $100
  • Dado Blades for table saw : $100
  • Planer set : My brother had a great used set he purchased for $250
  • Clamps : $75 – We had a few of these going at a time
  • Carving tool : $500 with accessories – We had a Foredom with connected shop vac
  • Carving Bits : $200 (We burned up a couple)
  • Shop Vac : $50
  • Kreg Jig for concealed/angled screws :  $140
  • Shaping Table : $800 – $1200 – We had a 1.5 HP Grizzly
  • Shaping Bit : $50 we used just one, for the accessory groove
  • Chop/Miter Saw : $250
  • Circular Saw : $100
  • Jig Saw : $50
  • Drill + Bits : $50
  • Finish nail gun and compressor : $200 – You easily use a hammer and nail punch for the limited nailing
  • Plug cutter and Drill Press : to plug screw holes (we just had four)
  • Finish – Teak Oil
  • Cherry wood – I wish I had documented this better, but the wood alone was around $900. I can’t really say how many board feet, or the dimensions purchased
  • Plywood – for base of gaming vault, we used birch
  • Shop/garage to work in

Total cost works out to around $1,000 in materials and $4,000 in tools. For comparison, a Geek Chic Hoplite coffee table was from $2,000-$4,000, and a Carolina Game Table coffee table with much less in terms of features, not even a cover, is available for $900. Even when you just consider the cost of the wood, DIY is not necessarily going to save you a ton of money on a coffee table, but my ultimate intention is to build a dining room table where the savings gap will be much greater.

It is important for me to stress though, the cost of the gaming tables on the market is really quite reasonable when you consider the craftsmanship that goes into each, and the custom nature of the more expensive tables.

My custom DIY build though wasn’t so much about the savings. It’s about the satisfaction of making a piece of furniture with my own hands (or my brother’s hands)… a piece my kids will be able to take and use and hand-down to the next set of geeks. It’s also about making a table that meets my specific requirements. The dimensions, including the depth of the game vault are all determined by me. Accessories can be made for whatever I can conceive of. And last, if I decide to carve claw feet, I can!

How to Build the Gaming Table

We started with the drawings and ideas from earlier in the post, and mostly worked it out as we went. It was interesting seeing where a table manufacturer would be saving time doing pieces in bulk, and learning why various design elements are the way they are. One benefit most commercial shops will have is that they likely have a tool set up for a specific purpose, and can leave it set one way, whereas we’d have to set up a tool, then change it, and have to change it back at a later time. This results in some inconsistencies and inefficiencies in our table build. There are definitely economies of scale with this work.

Bear in mind, this is not intended to be a step-by-step guide. I’ll just discuss and show images of each step of the table build.

Claw Feet

The first thing we did was build the legs from smaller pieces of material and start carving them. Easily the most time consuming part, this was also the most rewarding, and resulted in making this table really stand out from the commercial options. One leg is made up of two pieces of 2 x 2-ish material glued together. We then roughed in a basic claw shape with the carving tool, and worked it with finer detail from there. A band saw would have been excellent for the initial shaping on each leg. We probably spent 60+ hours on the legs.

Roughed in claw
We would sketch a basic idea and work down from there. Search for claw table feet online and you’ll find some amazing work! These were fine for a first attempt. This is where I put in the most work, carving three of these myself. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Claws in various stages
Three claw feet in various stages of completion. The first one we built, on the left, the claws looked strange, so we then went with a more natural position for the claws. Turns out the first one the claws are more visible from a high angle. Next time the carving will be viewed and worked considering the fact that the viewer is around six feet above them. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Carving a claw
This tool made carving pretty easy. Another change I’ll do next time is to build out the bottom of each leg so that the claw can be the same size or larger than the size of the rest of the leg. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Gaming Table Leg Design
Here you can see the design of the leg. The notch on the top of each leg supports the gaming vault. The notch was added to one of the 2″x2″ boards prior to gluing them together. Design by Jason Hiller.

Accessory Groove

The notch or groove on the outer edge of the table is designed to take accessories such as cup holders, dice trays, paper holders, and the like. The idea is straight from Geek Chic and took us awhile to figure out. After a couple of trial runs we got a working sample, and then had something to replicate.

Accessory Slot In Use
To demonstrate what we’re building, here are two accessories, a cup holder and a small platform for papers, inserted into the table’s accessory groove. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Accessory Notch Design
Finalizing the design before attempting to produce a working sample. We were lining up the shaping table bit. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Table Saw Pass 2
The bulk of the accessory groove is created by two passes with a dado blade on a table saw. There’s likely a blade to get this done in one pass, but not with the tools we had. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Router Pass
The notch in the groove that holds the shelf in place was done with a shaping table. This is an example of where having a dedicated tool that never changed its setup would help a great deal. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Working accessory notch sample
The edge of the accessory shelf itself was created with a couple of light table saw passes, then sanding and planing work. This sample helped us get our process down. Imagine the vertical board is the side of the table, and the horizontal board is a cup holder or some other accessory. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Mass producing the notch
Once we knew our tool settings and process we could put the grooves on our table side pieces. This had to be done now, because once the table is assembled we wouldn’t be able to do it! Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Accessories

There are many great accessories that can be built; mug holders, wine glass holders, dice rolling trays, card holders, book/computer/paper trays, and more. We used our scrap wood to make a few sample accessories. It’s on my list to make more. The main problem we have now is we don’t have a sample groove board that matches what’s on the table (It came out slightly different than our initial prototype). Making new attachments will be difficult unless I take the table back to the shop!

The ends of the shelf that go in the groove involved quite a bit of sanding and reworking until each accessory would insert and remove easily. We didn’t put a great deal of time perfecting this process as most of the accessories were done under the wire at the end of the build. We probably won’t get to making more until I am making them for the dining table build.

For the mug holder I purchased cup holder inserts from a a boating supply store.

Gaming Vault

This is probably most distinguishing element of a gaming table; the vault where games in-process can be covered and out of site until you can continue them. The vault was the first part of the structure to be built. It’s pretty simple, four sides and a bottom held together with some finishing nails and wood glue. None of these nails are visible in the end product. The inside of this box is the visible playing area, but the outside is totally enclosed in another “box” that is built from the material with the accessory groove prepared above.

The depth of this vault box needs to match the notch depth on the legs and determines the final depth of the gaming vault. I went deep, so I could enclose games with large figures or terrain. I envision later creating a raised felt covered insert for playing games on a shallower surface.

The base of the vault is a piece of birch plywood. It’s a little cheaper than cherry, and the lighter colored playing surface is kind of cool.

Gaming vault being built
This is just a simple box held together with wood glue and finishing nails. Nothing fancy at all. The sides are all nice cherry wood. The base here is a piece of birch plywood. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Gaming vault being built.
Affixing the base. More glue and nails. None of the edge nails will be visible as another box encloses this one. The nails on the bottom would be visible from underneath, but are wood-puttied and sanded. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Finished Vault.
This is the visible play surface. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Main Table Frame

We then built the outer frame. This included the legs and the visible outer table sides where the accessory grooves are. The outer boards rest right into a notch built into the legs. It’s important to have made the leg-notches the right depth for the desired vault depth. We fully assembled this outer frame and then dropped the vault into it. We may do this differently next time as we could have very easily run into a situation where it didn’t all come together!

Building the outer box
Two more grooved boards extend perpendicular towards the other two legs. A small portion of each leg notch is left to hold the vault-box. One major difference between this table and the Geek Chic tables I’ve seen online, is that this table is not designed for disassembly for travel like Geek Chic tables were. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Building the outer box
The outer shell of the table, all visible parts. The vault will set down within this structure. A piece of each leg notch is still exposed for the vault to rest on. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Once the wood glue did its thing, we were ready to drop in the vault. If we did this again, we’d likely build it around the vault to more likely get a fit.

This is also the first place we ended up with some exposed screws. In the center of each inner board we put in one screw to help hold it all together, We then filled the hole with a plug we created from some of our cherry scrap.

Vault inserted into table
The vault has now been inserted into the main table. It was pretty important to get all the sizes right. It fit like a glove! Notice the edges are now two boards thick. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Close up of table structure
Here is a close-up of the vault now within the frame of the table. Notice how the end of the accessory groove on the outer board is covered by the table leg. All the unseemly seams will be covered by a trim board. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Upper Table Edge

We built a frame that served the dual purposes of coving all those ugly seams in the above picture, as well as leaving a lip for the vault cover boards to rest on.

Top frame
Trying on the upper edge boards for size. These serve to cover most of the construction seams, as well as leaves a lip for the vault covers to rest on. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Hidden screws on top frame.
We used a Kreg Jig to insert angled screws to connect the upper frame together without having any exposed connectors. This is the bottom of one of the corners of the upper frame. We then glued this on and included a couple more finish nails for good measure. These nails are exposed and covered with wood putty. We just didn’t trust the glue enough. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Cover

The vault cover consists of five boards about 10 inches wide. They just need to be cut long enough to rest on the lip created in the prior step, and be wide enough when all are in to fill the vault hole. Each board needs a little overlap. We went with a flush surface where the vault cover boards are flush with the upper frame put in during the last step. As humidity changes in my house some of these boards change shape, and raise up above the upper frame. Looking at pictures of Geek Chic tables online, the cover boards appear slightly recessed, so you never end up with them higher than the outer frame.

Working the vault cover boards
Here we’re working the vault cover boards to fit as tightly as possible. They will never all fit in the space until we groove each board to overlap one another. The boards have a specific order for placement back onto the table and in the end product we have a number written on the side of each board. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Vault cover overlap.
This overlap allows the vault cover pieces to help support each other and maintains a secure fit. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Vault cover boards finished
Voila! The vault cover is finished! In this picture there is not a way to get the boards out. In this shot there is a piece of blue painter’s tape acting as a handle to pull up the center board. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Opening Mechanism

We needed a way to lift up a board to be able to get them all out. I spent quite a bit of time trying to find a skeleton key mechanism to use. The idea being there’d be a keyhole on the outer edge of the table with a skeleton key sticking out. When you turn the key, the lock mechanism would push up and lift a board. Under a time constraint though my carpenter brother came up with a lever mechanism that worked well.

 

Finish

We covered the table in teak oil. I liked the look, and it was a material that we could easily add more later.

Applying finish to the gaming table
Finishing the table with teak oil. The inner birch plywood play surface is much lighter than the cherry. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

The Finished Gaming Table

The last coats of teak oil and some finishing touches on the various accessories happened on Christmas Eve for set-up in the wee hours of Christmas morning. One of the things I sometimes regret with these surprise projects is that while my kids get to be surprised and enjoy the final product, they are not involved in or learning from the build process. I’ll definitely involve them in the dining room table build if that ever happens.

Check out all of the design, process, and finished gaming table pictures in my Flickr album.

Finished Gaming Table
The gaming table in my living room. It’s now the nicest piece of furniture in my house. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Claw foot
The claw feet add to the uniqueness of the table. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Finished Gaming Table
A couple of accessories in use. And there’s Kurzog’s spell book on display. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

 

Using the Custom Gaming Table

The table is seeing quite a bit of use. My oldest is running a Pathfinder campaign on it as I type this. The following pictures show some of the configurations you can use the table in. I need to start cranking through many of my unplayed games and my plan is to set up one game in the vault, replace the cover and set up a second game on top. On game night, we’ll play the first game until we’re ready to move on, put it away, and uncover the table to access the second game. It’ll be a way to allow us to focus more on playing and less on setting up when the gamers are over.

Zombicide set up in gaming table.
Zombicide: Black Plague set up and ready for a TPK. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Blood Rage set up in table
Blood Rage set up. Note the end boards are in for a little table space. Photo by Ryan Hiller.
Playing Modern Armor in Gaming Table
Here are the Pedion terrain pieces in use for a game of modified ‘Modern Armor’ tank battling. Note the Elderwood Scroll and Codex dice tower in use. Photo by Ryan Hiller.

Should You Build Your Own Gaming Table?

That’s a tough question. If you don’t have the tools, access to the tools, or have an ongoing need to have the tools, then it is certainly not a cost effective solution. If you have the tools, then by all means, just make your own gaming table. It’s not really that difficult. You can make it a much more simple process by not having the groove, or not carving, but really, the claws were not that difficult. Again, I carved three of them, and they aren’t bad, especially considering they are the first things I’ve ever carved!

On the other hand, the costs I’ve seen online for gaming tables, after seeing what goes into building one, are completely reasonable. Especially when you compare them to other quality (but boring) pieces of regular furniture. Given the time you’ll use these tables, it’s very easy to justify!

What’s Next? Designing a Custom Gaming Dining Table

With the trial run on a coffee table successfully completed, it’s time to consider the original goal, a full size dining room gaming table. First though, I want to really investigate my gaming table needs.

Do I really need the vault? I do like being able to cover a game in process and come back to it later. The central focus of my gaming table though is for roleplaying Pathfinder/D&D type games, so I want to ensure it meets that need. Currently I use a projector to display my RPG maps onto my dining table from above, but I’d like an LCD laying flat for the maps. I need to consider the placement of computers, spots for character sheets, RPG books, miniatures, dice trays, and more.

To really flesh out the  requirements of my dining room gaming table, during my next few Pathfinder sessions I’m going to have the players come up with requests and suggestions for what might make the gaming easier and more comfortable. But here’s what I think so far.

Gaming Dining Table Requirements

  • 4′ x 4′ standard size : Good size for family of four dining
  • Expandable : Two 2′ sections for expanding table to 4′ x 6′ or 4′ x 8′. Close to our current dining table capabilities. One of the key requirements of the dining table is for it to be expandable. My brother currently refuses to consider this! A fixed 4′ x 6′ table is too big for a family of four to have a meal at, while too small for the 14+ people meals we sometimes have at my house. Our current dining table expands from a 4′ circle to about 4′ x 9′. Table slides exist for this, and I could even use the one made by Watertown Table Slide Co already on my current dining table
  • The expansion pieces need to work as a gaming fault, or covered as a regular table
  • Gaming vault with removable lid to cover games – 5-6 inches deep
  • Groove on edge of table for accessories like cup holders, computer holders, etc
  • Flat panel television capabilities. Television should not be a permanent part of the table, so the tech does not make the table obsolete. I would like the television to be able to be left in the vault and covered. If the screen is in an enclosed area in the table, it will need to be vented for cooling.
  • Power accessible on the table and through the vault
  • Dungeon Master station : I think the best set up is some kind of wrap around as pictured below
  • Computer stations : While playing Pathfinder most of us are using Hero lab on computers. We also use Syrinscape, and Roll20 which require computers.
  • I want to be able to easily store the in-process Pathfinder/D&D game for between sessions. Miniatures, dice, books, etc need to be quickly stored, and pulled out as-they-were
  • Mechanism to lift vault-cover
  • Cool claw feet! I envision four different claw feet on this table. Maybe the hoof of Orcus or some demon, a dragon claw, the claw of a griffon, and something else. I’m still trying to come up with four good ones, but one thing I have to consider is that I want to hand this table down to one of my kids and some spouse may frown upon a demon hoofed table! I am going to build up the size of the bottom of the table leg prior to carving this time so that the carved foot can be as big as the table leg or bigger once carved
Custom Dinner Gaming Table
The upper left depicts how the table would expand, and what an insert would look like. The lower right depicts the table with DM station, a laptop shelf, and embedded LCD. On the upper right is a storage drawer idea. Sketches by Ryan Hiller.

Outlandish ideas

  • Billards ball style chutes for players to roll dice that come out on a tray near the dungeon master for rolls that the players should not see the result of.
  • Power capability concealed and run up through the leg of a table, and into the gaming vault
  • Runes/carvings over portions of the table
  • TV on mechanism that will lift it up for viewing, and then lower it back into the table for concealment.
  • Skeleton key lock mechanism or some tricky secret lever/puzzle mechanism for lifting the cover

This was a fun process that I could not have done without the help of my brother. I think I know enough now though to do most of the next table on my own. I think if I had a table saw, some planers, and a miter saw here I could do the majority of the work, just running to his shop for the accessory groove, Kreg Jig, and other one-off needs. I’m going to start by finalizing my requirements and determining the design for the table legs. I’ll then build the legs, and start carving.

Please provide any ideas for improvement, or requirements you’d want for your gaming table in the comments below.

Many more pictures are available in this Flickr photo album.

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