Wargaming Tradecraft: Building Yourself a Cheap Tabletop


Building Yourself a Cheap Tabletop

For a while now, I've been wanting to make some sort of war-table that'd allow TheWife and I (and any guests) to game. A buddy and I built a full size table before, but that doesn't exactly work in an apartment. I've been pondering and doing some mental planning recently after taking notice of how the FLGS extends their Magic tables for WarmaHordes. Last weekend I spent some time and built myself a wargaming field. In this post, I'm going to show you how. (And cheaply!)

After building it, TheWife liked it so much, she decided I needed to build a second one to keep out all the time. It fills our living room nicely, and will work great for board games, card games, puzzles, etc.

As I mentioned, we live in an apartment, so space is a factor. For this reason, a full size war-table wasn't an option. Instead, I decided I'd take my existing coffee table and build a topper for it.

The last battlefield I built was an 8' x 4' full-size table, but we played 2 vs 2 at 2000 pts each 40k games. For smaller 1 vs 1 skirmish games, 4' x 4' is plenty of room, but still bigger than the average table. Anyone can make a suitable top for your own tables, as long as they're sturdy enough.


The cost of this project was extremely low.
  • $16.99 - 4' x 8' sheet Sanded Spruce Plywood, 1/2" thick (enough for 2 surfaces)
  • $2.23 - 2' x 4', 8' long
  • $2.23 - 2' x 4', 8' long
  • $6.59 - 8 x 2 Flat Head Wood Screws (100pk) For building the frame
  • $5.19 - 8 x 1.25 Flat Head Wood Screws (100pk) For attaching the plywood
  • = $33.23
Your frame might be smaller / bigger depending on the size of your table, which might mean you'll need different lengths of 2x4's.

If you want to make two of these, double your 2x4's:
  • $33.23 - Supplies to make the first
  • $4.46 - Two 2x4's
  • $37.69

If you and a friend want to make two of these, the price becomes incredibly cheap if you split it.
  • $8.50 - Split the surface in half
  • $4.46 - Two 2x4's
  • $5.89 - Split the cost of all the screws.
  • = $18.85

A battlefield for under $20? Yes please.

When buying your surface, get something thick enough that it doesn't easily bend, but not something so thick that it's extra heavy. I found 1/2" a good size. Most hardware stores will offer services to do some of your wood cutting for you - an unwieldy piece like this is a good one to have the employees cut in half for you.

When you're picking your two by fours, turn them on their sides, and look down the length to make sure it's not warped. You'll find some seriously warped / damaged wood at hardware stores. Think they wouldn't sell you garbage? Think again.

top-left: Good
bottom-left and right: Bad

Keep an eye out for other defects in the wood. Some can be hidden by facing them down, just make sure they're not going to weaken the wood.

Special Note on Sizing

Before buying your screws, it's very important to be aware that wood sizing isn't actually exact. When we built our big table, we ended up with a bunch of screws that were too long because we didn't realize it.

In the photo, I've measured a 2x4. The "2 inch" side is actually 1.5 inches, and the "4 inch" side is just shy of 3.5 inches.

FYI, screw labelling is thus:
8x2 means 8 gauge (thickness) and 2" long

Here's what we're making:

The idea is that you've got a sheet of wood that will sit on a table you already own.

Attached to that sheet, will be a frame. This frame will fit closely around the table you're building the battlefield for. Don't design it too tight, a little shifting is OK. If it's too tight, it can't be easily removed / put on.

First, you'll build the frame, then you'll attach the top.

I could have designed the tabletop a few ways, and the difference between them is a matter of support. I went with the bottom left method, because it extends support out to the edge of the table. You'll want to take careful measurement of the surface you're fitting the table on.

Try to extend some of the wood out to the edges of the tabletop. This'll support the whole surface without any bending. The tabletop can be any shape or size, just adjust the wooden frame accordingly. Even a circular table will work just fine.

Now you're going to want to take some exact measurements before you start cutting. Measure ALL FOUR SIDES. Notice my table actually had one side slightly larger than the other.

To find out where to place the wood, you're going to need some math. Use the larger sides for your math, if any are different lengths:

Since you'll build the frame first, calculate where the inner pieces of wood will go:

Take the width of the tabletop (48")
And the width of the table (23 3/4")
Subtract those (48 - 23 3/4 = 24 1/4")
Divide that by two (24 1/4   /   2   =  12 1/8")
Then subtract a little bit so the tabletop fits loosely. How much is up to you. (12 1/8" - 1/8" = 12")

Then, figure out where the long pieces will be placed on the tabletop:

Take the width of the tabletop (48")
And the width of the table (38")
Subtract those (48 - 38 = 10")
Divide that by two (10   /   2   =  5")
Then subtract a little bit so the tabletop fits loosely. How much is up to you. (5" - 1/8" = 4 7/8")

Once your calculations are done, use a pencil to mark where everything should line up.
On the 4' pieces, use a pencil to mark 12" in from each end.
On the large 4' x 4' tabletop, mark 4  7/8" in from the sides the 4' sections will be across.

Now that I'm actually ready to start connecting the frame, I lay everything out, and use the tabletop it'll be fitting over as a guide. By building around it, you'll ensure nothing's too tight or too loose.

At this point, you don't have to worry about lining up the tabletop... that comes after the frame is built.

Cut the Wood

I only had 3 cuts to make, which you can see in the diagram above.
  1. Cut one 2x4x8 in half.
    An 8 foot long 2x4 is perfect for the longer frame, because 1 cut gets you both pieces.
  2. Cut the second 2x4 at points 38" in from each end.
    Since I'm working with a hand-saw, it's tricky to have perfectly 90 degree flat ends. By cutting each segment from the end of the 2x4, with the scrap piece in the middle, I start with flatter parts.
ALWAYS mark your cuts before making them. This'll act as a guide. Like in the display cabinet project, I use a metal square to ensure my lines are straight.

If you make a mistake, it's alright - at $2.23 for an eight foot long 2x4, you can afford to make a few mistakes. In fact, buy an extra or two just incase if you're new at this.

Don't forget to file the rough edges. This is where larger files, not hobby files, come in handy.

Building the Frame

Once everything's lined up, I start by using a drill to create some pilot holes. (Like on my shelf building tutorial)

Then, I use a larger drill, just a little bigger than the head of my screws, to drill a few 1/8 sink holes. It's not a big deal, just habit... but since I have flat head screws, it's really not that necessary.

Using the longer of the screws, place it at the first pilot hole, and screw it in until it's just poking out the other side of the wood. Check AGAIN to make sure things are lined up where you want them. Holding the pieces firmly together, screw in the rest of the way. If you end up with a gap, you didn't have the two pieces held firmly together and will have to remove the screw and try again. (Get a helper to hold things if needed) Now, do the other screw.

To be safe, square up the tabletop now that you have one brace attached and check where you marked for the next piece of wood to connect. Now's the time to adjust this end, incase you need it to be a little looser or tighter. See how both sides of your table fit in here, incase one side is bigger than the other.

Drill and screw the next piece in.

I now have a 4' section of wood with two 38" pieces attached. All that's left of the frame is to attach the other 4' section to the other side. Once again, see how the frame fits over both sides of the existing table, and ensure there's enough room for it to move around a little bit.

Make sure the frame definitely fits over your table. Better you adjust it now, than after you attach the tabletop.

Attaching the Tabletop

Now that the frame is built, it's an easy job to attach the plywood tabletop.
Lay the tabletop out on top of the frame, and line up the marks you made earlier with the 4' lengths.

Check all four points to see how in-line you can get things... it might not be perfect as the frame can be slightly off.

Put a screw through the tabletop in each corner to secure it in place.

Then, draw a line between the two screws at either end of the same 2x4.
Do the same for the inner 2x4's.

This creates guides for where all the tabletop screws need to go. Screw them all in, and your table is done!

To clean things up, take a large file to all the edges.


  1. Very nice tutorial!
    The only thing I could add would be this. Use a hot glue gun or staples to add a layer of cheap felt to the underside of the table where it rests on the coffee table. This will prevent any unwanted scratches that might appear, even with sanded wood.
    Also, if your supports are going to the edge like yours are, do you think a thicker piece of hardboard, like 1/4 inch, would work?

  2. Thanks, and there are some detail steps I'll be doing in another article. A cloth layer to protect tables is actually already planned, as is sanding, staining and varnishing the underside, then creating a battlefield. But yes, I should have mentioned it because it's an excellent suggestion.

    The 1/4" felt really heavy. It would be sturdier, but with all that extra weight, I'd say even more a reason to build supports. You don't want to put that extra strain on the frame.

  3. Hhmmm, maybe we're thinking of different materials. The 1/4 or sometimes 3/16 board that I'm talking about is the same type of stuff that you would usually see the back of cabinets made out of. There is no grain to it, just a manufactured board. When it is supported it's actually quite strong. All of our FLGS's movable gaming surfaces are made from it, and a lot of folks use it for a base for terrain.

    Looking forward to the rest of the article! You always have great content here!

  4. This is really cool! I love the detail you added to help those of us that are less DIY experienced than others. One thing somebody could add if they want to do this on a nicer table is to add some felt in strategic places to keep from scratching the finish.

  5. Nice idea and a great tutorial. If you were to cut the cross braces at 45 degrees where they meet the edges of the board you might save the odd knocked knee without losing any strength. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Great idea, been meaning to do this for our Euro games, thank you.

  7. Fantastic article. Our only suggestion would be to take a piece of felt and lay it under the battons before you screw them to the top. That would prevent damage to the surface of the table beneath and reduce any wobbles if the two are completely flat.

    Alternatively you could use some of the small sticky-backed felt discs you can find on eBay and stick on in each corner of the recess formed by the support 2x4s.


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