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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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).
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).
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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 🙁
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.
Nailed It! (but not like on Pinterest)
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!
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!
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