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Home / DIY / How to build a factory cart coffee table

How to build a factory cart coffee table

Factory Cart - Completed

Are you ready to learn How to build a factory cart coffee table? Perhaps you already have one laying around, and want to learn how to restore an old factory cart. You’ve come to the right place but first things first, grab yourself some Sweet Tea… this is going to be a weekend project!

Initial Thoughts…

One of the more popular DIY projects that I’ve seen quite a bit lately are the old factory carts. Originally these carts were used in factories to move large or heavy parts from one area to another, or by railroads to move passenger luggage more efficiently.

Fast forward about a hundred years to today, and you’ll find little to no purpose for these big heavy carts in their original areas of use. Instead a bunch of folks who thought these carts way too cool to simply send off to the landfill decided to re-purpose them into home decor, mainly as coffee tables.

I am going to get pretty in-depth with this walk through, showing you the steps I followed to take this project from start to finish while sharing the issues I ran into along the way. My hope is that this will give you some inspiration to start (or finish) your own factory cart project because the process, while challenging at times is rewarding and the final result can be absolutely stunning.

You have a few choices in the beginning stage of this project, and it’s best to lay out a plan even if just in your head about making your own factory cart coffee table.


Pre “Getting Started” (I think they call this the preface?!)

1) Restore & Keep Original: This is the “noblest” way to go, if you like the idea of taking something old and keeping all the character of it. Basically your end goal it to not replace anything on the cart with new parts or pieces but simply give it a “refreshing” without damaging any originality. Note: This was my goal with the cart I restored, as you’ll see in the tutorial below I was ultimately unable to stick with it.

2) Restore, Mix of Original & New: In this method your goal is to keep the factory cart as original as possible, however using new parts and pieces where necessary. This may mean that if the carts original wood is rotten or termite infested (a problem I ran into) that you remove the original wood and replace it with new boards that match the original as closely as possible.

3) Building New: If this is the route you’re wanting to take you won’t be attempting to keep any of the character of the original cart, and are basically creating a cart from scratch. This is good and well, however part of the fun of this DIY project is making every attempt to re-use and re-purpose as many pieces of the original as possible.

Getting Started…

1) Find yourself a factory cart, railroad cart, furniture factory cart or whatever you want to call it.
Some of the original manufacturers of these carts and names that will aid in your search for the perfect piece are Lineberry (from North Carolina), Towsley (from Cincinnati), Jake’s Foundry (Nashville), Hoosier Fence Co (Indiana). There are so many of these, find one that suits you. For the purpose of this project I used a Towsley cart, shown below in all it’s original glory.


Original Towsley Factory Cart

What a good looking cart. Can't wait to start this project!

What a good-looking cart. Can’t wait to start this project!

2) You will need a decent sized area to work in for this project, and it’s best to have something like a Canvas Drop Cloth to put down on the floor to keep your mess isolated. Trust me on the drop cloth, it’s going to save you a lot of time in the cleanup department as this project progresses.

The Breakdown…

1) Hammer Time! Now that you have your cart, and a nice fancy drop cloth you need to start carefully & slowly taking the factory cart apart. It is in this step that you don’t want to get ahead of yourself, specially if your goal is to keep everything as original as possible. I used a rubber mallet and a piece of scrap wood to gently knock these boards loose from the underside to prevent damaging them.

Removing the Original Boards

Removing the original boards, this was a slow process to avoid damaging the pieces worse than they already were.

Entire cart broken down, all pieces organized.

Entire cart broken down, all pieces cleaned and organized.

2) Take Pictures & Notes! As you dismantle the cart, be sure to take a few pictures along the way (or pictures of every step if you aren’t really sure what you’re doing), writing little notes to yourself or putting sticky notes on the individual pieces as you remove them isn’t a bad idea either if you’re unsure.

3) Rust Patrol! Chances are the cast iron hardware on your cart (the wheels, and all the other metal pieces) are going to have some rust on them, mine were pretty majorly rusted. I used Naval Jelly and a wire brush to clean and remove the rust from the cast iron parts. It’s a lot of work, and I recommend wearing some rubber gloves but it will remove the rust!

I used Naval Jelly to remove the rust all the cast iron hardware.

I used Naval Jelly to remove the rust all the cast iron hardware.

The Discovery…

Once you begin dismantling the cart, there is a good chance that you will as I did make a few discoveries that you weren’t counting on. For me it was the fact that I would have to scrap all of the wood from the original cart due to rot and termite damage. I wasn’t counting on this, and it really threw me for a loop but what are you gonna do? Adjust, and move forward!

Rotted & Termite damaged oak

1″ oak board for the cart top, rotted out.

Termite damage to the carts original 2x6" frame.

Termite damage to the original 2×6″ frame.

Termite damage inside cart frame

This termite damage was unseen until the top boards were removed. The entire frame literally fell apart when I removed the cast iron hardware.


 Changing Course…

As stated above, the whole termite thing threw a curve ball my way. The cart had apparently been in excellent shape but the previous owner made the decision to put it outside, and let it sit for over 3 years leading to the decay. I honestly considered just ditching the project at this point, I wanted to restore the cart using 100% original parts and pieces and it was now clear that was not going to happen. Not being one to quit, I revised my original plan..

Note: If you find an “active termite infestation” in your cart, keep it outside. The last thing you want is termites to move from the cart to your home or shed / garage. To control & kill active termites there is a great product out called Bora Care. It’s expensive but does the trick and permanently protects the wood, plus it’s considered a green product and is not toxic to people or pets once it has dried.

The revised plan was now to use the original hardware but replace all of the wood with new pieces. This in itself brought about another challenge that I definitely wasn’t ready for. That is the fact that when this cart was built a 2 x 6″ board was truly 2″ thick by 6″ tall. If you go down to your local lumber yard today and buy a 2 x 6″ board its actual size is 1 1/2″ x 5 1/4″. Considering that all of the cast iron hardware that comes with the cart was made specifically for the original sizes you can see how quickly things can devolve!

Note: Some lumber yards sell true or “nominal” sized boards, so check around if you run into this same predicament.

New 1" oak boards at various widths for the top

New 1″ oak boards at various widths for the top.

The Needed Parts & Pieces

Depending on the type of cart you begin with, your inventory list may be different from my Towsley cart, but I’ll share it anyways in hopes that it helps!

Required Wood

1) The Frame: 1 – 2x8x12 long board (Measure the original boards for length, then cut your new boards at the same)

Note: The original frame for this cart was 2×6″, I decided to beef up mine and go with 2×8 boards. If you remember modern 2×8″ boards are really only 1 1/2 x 7 1/4″ so we only added about 1 1/4″ height to the frame.
The cheapest wood is going to be pine, and is what I used since I knew I could make it look close to the oak top boards. If you decide to buy a 2×8″ oak boards (if you can find them) know ahead of time that they are going to be astronomically expensive. You will likely end up spending over $100 for the one board as opposed to about $10 for the same sized pine board.

2) The Top:  (Measure your original boards, and cut the new ones at the same length)
1×4″ – 2 pieces
1×6″ – 6 pieces
1×8″ – 1 piece

Note: I used oak for the top, as that was the original wood used. I also used differing size boards for a really neat look. Starting at the very center of the cart is a 1×8″ oak board, on each side of that is a 1×4″ oak board, moving out there are 3 – 1×6″ boards on each side which take you to the end of the cart (See completed cart for the visual).

Required Hardware

The nuts and bolts that came with this cart were all different. It looked like over the years a number of them had been replaced. I made a decision to replace all the nuts and bolts with new carriage bolts for a uniform look. Most likely your cart will contain all the original nuts and bolts and you can skip this step.

 1) 12 – 1 1/2″ Carriage Bolts (The number of bolts needed for your cart may vary, and again it’s best to use the original bolts if possible but the carriage bolts add a nice flush look to the project).

I primed and painted these carriage bolts to match the rest of the cart.

I primed and painted these carriage bolts flat black to match the rest of the cart.

Required Accessories

Below is a list of the accessory items I used for this project. While the colors are your preference, you don’t want to go and use a cheap stain or a .99 cent can of spray paint on a project like this, or forget to use a primer. Pay the extra for the best, and your final result will show it.

1) Rustoleum High Performance Enamel Spray – Flat Black
2) Rustoleum Grey Primer
3) Naval Jelly (rust removal)
4) Minwax Cherry wood stain

rustoleum-flat-black-enamel rustoleum-grey-primer

         minwax-cherry-wood-stain         naval-jelly-rust-remover


Uses: Naval Jelly to remove rust from the cast iron hardware, this stuff works great but is a lot of work. Rustoleum Grey Primer is used after the rust is removed from the cast iron hardware and it is completely dried. This helps to seal up the cast iron and provides a good base for our final paint. I used Rustoleum High Performance Enamel (flat black) over the dried primer. This stuff is heavy-duty, and looks amazing once finished. Lastly, I had chosen a Cherry color wood stain made by Minwax for the wood, this is personal preference and for me it was perfect.

Putting the pieces back together (I’m not even a psychologist!)

Staining Wood

Preparation: One of the best tips I can give when it comes to staining wood is to be sure you have it prepared properly before you start staining. You want to sand it down to remove any roughness from the wood which will allow the stain to penetrate the wood better resulting in a better finish once stained. I would start with a #220 Grit Sandpaper, and go with the grain of the wood until it feels smooth. Lastly, you want to use a tack or cheesecloth to remove all of the dust you’ve created from the wood before you stain.

The Stain: Stain is very easy to apply, and the best advice I can give is to have a good brush made for stains and put the stain on in the direction of the wood grain. Depending on the type of wood you may need to apply more than one coat, if you need to just be sure to follow the label instructions for timing in between coats.

Always apply stain in an open air area, because those pink elephants you’ll start seeing if you don’t aren’t your friend! If you are unsure of how the stain will look, test a small spot that won’t be seen before you start.


Staining the oak pieces for the top of the cart.

Look at how beautifully the grain shows up on this oak board once stained.

Look at how beautifully the grain shows up on this oak board once stained.


A closeup of the cart frame. I stained with cherry and let dry. Then roughed up the side of the frame with nail gouges. Lastly I rubbed an ebony stain over the frame and immediately wiped it off which gave an overall older wood look.

A closeup of the cart frame. I stained with a cherry stain and let dry. Then roughed up the side of the frame with small nail gouges and light hammer hits. Lastly I rubbed an ebony stain over the frame and immediately wiped it off which gave an overall old / vintage wood look.

Priming & Painting

It’s been said that there is never so cheap an improvement that has so great an impact as a new coat of paint on an old home. I feel the same way about the cast iron hardware that came with this cart. When the cart came into my possession it was in terrible shape, from the wood being unusable to the years of rust covering everything.

Priming: You may be tempted to skip this step to save time and/or money, I would urge you not to. Good quality primer provides a great seal for the iron and serves as a great base for your final paint. Make sure to follow the instructions on the paint can as far as how many coats you will need, and if spray painting go back and forth over the material to avoid clumping up the paint.

Painting: This is where you start to get an idea of the look of your finished product. Don’t start painting until you have a good solid base of primer that has had plenty of time to dry. Once you start painting make sure that you evenly apply the paint and avoid clumping or splattering the paint by moving the can side to side as you spray.

The big wheel, fully primed. After drying it will be ready for final painting.

The big wheel, fully primed. After drying it will be ready for final painting.

Primer has dried, now the final painting process has begun.

Primer has dried, now the final painting process has begun.


Cast Iron wheel painted with Rustoleum High Performance Enamel. This wheel weighs around 50-60 pounds.

Note: Don’t spray paint big cast iron wheels on your front porch.. you’ll end up having to buy new paint for your front porch because your greyish porch now has a noticeable black outline to it. Not speaking from experience or anything 🙁


All cast iron hardware primed and ready for final painting.

All cast iron hardware primed and ready for final painting.

Oak is stained, hardware is primed. In this step I am getting an idea of how everything will look.

Oak is stained, hardware is primed. In this step I am getting an idea of how everything will look.


Painting all cast iron with flat black enamel. Love the look!


Make sure the pieces fit!

This is the step where all those pictures and notes you should have taken when you were breaking the cart down will come in handy. Now if you didn’t take pictures, or notes this part of the process may take a bit longer depending on how “handy” you are.

Before you actually start screwing pieces together, and tightening things down it is always best to loosely fit everything together to make sure that all of the pieces of the cart will work. After you know it will, then you can start to attach everything permanently.

Aligning Cast Iron Pieces with wood frame

In this step, the wood frame is being fitted with the cast iron hardware. The red pipe is in place to ensure my alignment for the main wheel is correct. I put everything in place to make sure it fit properly.

Fitting the pieces together

On the original cart, these end wheels are secured to the inside of the frame. I flipped them to the outside to show off the beautiful cast iron details.

Nailed It! (but not like on Pinterest)

    These are the original, 100+ year old nails. I straightened them by placing them individually on a scrap piece of wood then moving them side to side while lightly tapping with a hammer. SLOW process, but worth it!

These are the original, 100+ year old nails. I straightened them by placing them individually on a scrap piece of wood then moving them side to side while lightly tapping with a hammer. SLOW process, but worth it!

First oak board ( 1x8" ) is centered and nailed in place!

First oak board ( 1×8″ ) is centered and starting to be nailed in place!

1x8" board at the center, 1x4" board on each side of it, and to finish there will be 3 - 1x6" boards on the outsides.

1×8″ board at the center, 1×4″ board on each side of it, and to finish there will be 3 – 1×6″ boards on the outsides.

The Finished Product

The end isn’t necessarily the best part of the project, to me the best part is being able to see the end from the beginning through the pictures that were taken along the way. You get to see the transformation take place from this raggedy old cart that most people would have thrown out, to an amazing finished cart that may be enjoyed for the next 100 years.

This has been my favorite DIY project to date, and while it was also the most frustrating at times I am so glad I took it on!


A closeup of the finished wheel attached to the frame of the cart.


This is the finished product, a thing of beauty.


Side angle of the completed cart.


Well, there you have it! Hopefully through the pictures, and included instruction you have learned how to build a factory cart coffee table, or simply how to restore an old factory cart. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below, and please if you attempt this project share the results.


Reader Builds (Submitted by readers of this blog!)

1) This amazing cart was built by Ed Arlt, he followed the ideas laid out above and built his own factory cart coffee table. As you can see, the results were stunning. Thanks Ed!

diy-factory-cart-table-ed-arlt factory-cart-coffee-table-ed-arlt

Did you learn how to build a factory cart coffee table reading this blog, then actually built one? I’d love to feature pictures of your cart here, e-mail them to michael [at] sweetteajunkie.com

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  • dustin

    How do u keep cart from tilting or is that just part of the look and feel?

    • You would need to use a level on the top of the cart and then lower the end wheels to the proper height to stop the tilt.

      To accomplish this you will likely need to add a small amount of wood to the bottom of the ends or use 2×10″ boards for all sides instead of recommended 2×8″ to drop the wheel assembly low enough to be level and not have back and forth tilt.

      I have heard of some people just lowering how the end wheels sit in the assembly and screwing them tight so they don’t move, this is an option as well but your wheels would be stuck in place permanently.

      I left the tilt in the table, but moved the wheel assembly from being inside the cart to the outside (see before/after pictures) as I thought it added more character to the finished product.

      Hope that helps, reply back if you’re still unclear and thank you for checking out this DIY!

  • Fuckyjunky

    With your post I was able to build my table thank you.. I kept everything original even though some wood was cracked and broken and nuts and bolts were bent and worn. I sanded and oiled the top wood. I also painted wheels black. Again thanks for your info my table looks great..

    • Wow thank you! I’m glad this could be a resource for you to complete your cart. I would love to see some completed pictures.

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  • Debbie

    Did you use a clear coat of anything to protect it?

    • Yes, I actually used a spray on satin clear coat to protect the finish. I ended up using pretty close to the full can over the course of a number of coats to provide really good coverage and protection.

      You could also use a clear polyeurethane that is applied with a brush if you want something a bit thicker. If you apply by brush make sure that the clear coat goes on level and that your brush isn’t leaving any hairs in the clear.

  • Rosa

    Hi Michael,

    I love your cart and I am wanting to make my own but I am having a hard time finding the cart here in southern California.
    Any suggestions???
    Thank you.

    • michael


      A few places you may want to consider looking would be Craigslist, eBay (if you can find a cart locally to avoid shipping costs), you may also consider looking at some vintage/antique/junk shops sometimes they will carry them. I really hope that helps, and would absolutely love to see pictures of your cart once completed.

      An update to this comment: Try http://www.searchtempest.com it is a website that searches all the major swap/trade/auction sites like eBay/Craigslit/Oodle etc. and gives you all of the results in one page. Very convenient.

  • Brandy

    It’ looks great!!! My only question is, why didn’t you stain the cart using tea? I’m restoring my cart in the next week or two and plan on using tea as the stain. Is that a bad idea?

    • michael

      The tea stain idea would have made perfect sense hah, I was probably too busy drinking all the tea I would have used anyways!

      I’d love to see how your cart turns out with the tea stain, please feel free to reply with pictures or email them over to michael[at]sweetteajunkie dot com if you’d like me to post them up on the blog!

  • Ed

    Its currently in pieces but once i’ve got it assembled I’ll gladly show it to you. I pretty much followed your instructions which made this project so much easier.

  • Ed

    Michael, thanks for getting back to me so quick. Try as I might with the ebony I couldn’t control the unwanted staining on the pine. I ended up using another dark stain Early American. For some reason it wiped up much easier and gave similar results. I used a model paint brush to fill dents and scratches as well as highlight knots and cracks in the wood. Overall I’m pleased with how it turned out. I did the touch up work at my dining room table and I think I saw one of those elephants you spoke of….haha.

    Thanks again Ed

    • michael

      That’s very interesting that the ebony color wouldn’t give you the results you were looking for, I’m glad however that you were able to get it to work out with the Early American stain. Pine can be tricky with stains in my experience, it just seems to suck it in so fast and has a tendency to get really dark.

      Hey I would absolutely love to see pictures of your finished cart (minus the elephants! haha) if you have any… michael [at] sweetteajunkie.com

  • Ed

    Michael, whats the trick with the ebony on the sides of the base. I tried it on some scrap wood but it kept coming out way to dark.

    Thanks Ed

    • michael


      What I did was stain the board first with the cherry color stain and let dry. I then used a very small amount of ebony stain on the wood and literally after brushing it on immediately took a paper towel and rubbed it off. If you are using pine for the frame you have to wipe it off fast because it will otherwise suck the stain in and make the wood very dark.

      It’s a little bit of a process, but if you can perfect the technique on some scrap wood (of the same type as your frame) it will be worth it! I’d love to know how it goes please comment back once you’ve tried it, hope that helps!

  • ed

    I’m just starting to rebuild my own cart. Thank you for taking the time to post yours. It’s providing me a wealth of information.

    • michael


      Thank you for the kind words, this was such a fun project for me personally and it’s my hope that you’ll find some inspiration from this post in completing yours!