How to Upcycle an Old Chest of Drawers into a Chabudai… and more

Tools needed:
Hammer
screwdriver (ratcheting is wonderful but any will do)
Small wood chisel or tiny pry bar
Saw (only of legs or anything else needs cutting)
Optional – A sturdy nail if any staples need removing. An old bent one is okay as long as it works.

Supply List
Old chest of drawers, preferably solid wood and can be missing most or all the drawers.
Enough screws to hold the cross pieces to underside of the “table top” together. We used 1 1/4” screws to go through the first layer but not too far into the table top.
Enough screws to pin the legs to the table. We used 16 screws that were 1/2” long to pin the L brackets to the underside of the table.
Legs. These can be made with spare wood from the chest of drawers, salvaged (like we did), purchased from any hardware store that sells pre-made legs, or attach legs made with anything attached with an Anwenk mounting kit from Amazon.

My daughter recently moved into a cute little studio apartment in a historic district in the Seattle area. In short she came there to go to college with only a suitcase and a carry on. Upon moving into this studio she got super lucky as whoever lived there before had purchased a platform and a nice new full size mattress. Also left behind were a number of other items. I took a flight out to visit with her and took with me a number of items for her including mostly clothes and things for the kitchen. We then went to work making use of what had been left behind in the building by former tenants. She was told when she moved in that anything left in her studio (and another unoccupied one) were free to take.
The grand prize was an old solid pine chest of drawers that was missing all the drawers except the top and bottom ones.

She had been taking for a while about wanting a chabudai. Which is one of those Japanese tables that one sits at with a cushion on the floor. She had been hoarding these table legs that had been left behind in hopes to make one herself. She just needed the top part and a way to attach the legs.
A chabudai is not to be confused with a kotatsu, which is a cute little Japanese short table that has a heater and possibly a quilt that one can tuck their legs under to keep warm. A chabudai as I am to understand it is basically the same sans the heater and quilt.

The only problem was one of the legs had was previously cut shorter than the rest. Less important was the rubbings of black paint on all of them. Presumably this happened when someone painted the walls, ceilings, and flooring black.
There are pros and cons of having an apartment where the landlord allows the tenants to do as they please. Nevertheless, all the black makes it not only cozy but creates an excellent canvas on which to paint.

She has started to decorate them already.

The writing means mamoru or to protect I think is what she told me. The desk was also left behind.

When she looked up the height of the legs for the chabudai, it turns out the already cut leg was the perfect height at about 12 inches. The maximum height of the legs should be just under 12 inches. Not wanting her to try to cut roughly an inch off the one cut leg I managed to convince her she needed a slightly taller than usual chabudai due to her height. She is 5 ft 7 1/2 inches. Especially given our limited arsenal of tools which consisted of a hand saw, ratcheting screw driver, hammer, and a smallish wood chisel.

Luckily someone had conveniently left behind all but one set of L brackets that we needed to attach the legs to the table top. We only had to buy the 1/2” screws to attach the bottom of the L brackets to the table (so they would not poke through) and some
1 1/4” screws to brace or pin the bottom of the two side pieces of the chest of drawers for the table top.

Step one:

Disassemble the chest of drawers removing the back side piece first by using the hammer to gently tap the nail to remove any staples holding the back on.
Note: If the back piece is wanted to be used later (possibly as an awesome giant canvas) then carefully remove the staples from the top side of the board. If the nail gets tucked under the board, it will tend to fall apart making a big mess and become more difficult to remove the staples.

Then, using the hammer while gently tapping the chisel or pry bar to separate the top piece and other wood from the main body. Remember to unscrew any screws used to hold the drawer together and plan to use any that are salvageable for assembling the table. Try to remove as much wood as possible without damage as it may be useful later.

Once all wood that is to be removed is gone, try fitting the two side pieces together to see how they fit and how it is liked.

Set these pieces aside and prepare the legs. My daughter decided to mark and cut the 3 remaining leg pieces to match the already cut one… outside, in the cold and wet dark, while I held a flashlight for her and occasionally annoyed her by taking pictures. I hesitate to tell her this is the only one that made the cut.

Then go back inside where it is warm and dry to begin assembly.
Start this by laying the two “table top” pieces on a soft surface on the floor (preferably a carpet or thick blanket) side by side. The reason for this is because if it is laid directly on hard flooring, there may be some small grit or crumbs that dig into the “new” table top while all the pressure of screwing the two pieces together presses it into them. If there is a small amount of “cushion between them it should not be an issue.

The pieces of wood laid at an angle are the salvaged parts of the dresser that are to be screwed into the underside of the new top pieces to hold them together.

She ultimately decided to remove to two small pieces at the far right side of the picture below for room to attach the legs.
After lining up the two top pieces, screw-in only the outer two screws and begin to screw in the middle two screws being careful to not go into the second layer of wood until making sure the two top pieces are perfectly aligned as shown where the arrow is pointing in the picture below. Only then, carefully screw in the remaining two screws in that piece. This should stabilize the top pieces so they wont move around too much.

Repeat this on the opposite end of the tabletop. Then attach the remaining cross braces to hold the top together as one.
Please note how all of the cross-bracing pieces are further stabilized by putting them up against the existing wood left behind. If we could possibly have fit the one-piece second from the right between the two pieces of wood, we would have.
Note: The dark looking screws are ones we salvaged when taking apart the old chest of drawers. Those were used first.

Then begin by attaching the L brackets to the legs (or whatever is needed) prior to trying to attach the legs to the table.

Then, attach the legs to the table, making sure one more time the screws do not poke through to the top side of the new tabletop.

Before fully attaching all legs, it is okay to (carefully) flip the table over and test it for stability. If the legs are uneven, they can possibly be “shimmed” with actual shims, slivers of wood, or anything that seems to work. We did not need to do any adjustments so the legs went in as planned. Another option would be to attach to the bottom of the legs some adjustable foot bottoms. These are available on Amazon or possibly a local hardware store.

Last step: Finish the legs in a favorite color. Also possibly someday put a strip around the outside of the top of the legs to stabilize and improve the raw look. Realistically, this probably will not happen.

The remaining drawers became a practically perfect shoe bin and (once the blanket was added) a beloved cat bed.

A happy cat
A finished Chabudai table