DIY: Custom Water Table

May 8, 2013

I recently completed building a fairly basic, custom water table for my son. While there were some definite challenges with the construction process, I wanted to post up my design and personal experiences with the process, in case others were looking to do the same. Please feel free to share your comments and thoughts here.


My son loves sensory tables – and he can keep himself busy for quite a while with a water pan and a few water containers. And with the recent move to a home with a deck/yard, as well as the birth of our girls, we thought it was a good time to set him up with a water table on the deck – somewhere he could play with light supervision.

As we engaged in a ‘buy v build’ decision, we had the following goals:

  • The table should be engaging, providing a canvas for him to play with
  • The table should be flexible for evolving/changing over time (adding tubes/pipes/etc.) as we have time and as his interests expand
  • The table should support water, as well as other sensory experiences (e.g., sand, rice, pasta shapes, etc.)
  • The table should be able to survive the Pacific NW elements and survive a boy toddler, with a goal of lasting about ~10 years being left outside
  • The table should look good outdoors Smile

We then commenced poking around on the internet – checking Craigslist, Pinterest, and random blogs. After a couple weeks, it became clear that most options tended to cluster on the ends of the spectrum, with not a lot in the middle. On the commercial end, most tended to be cheap water tables that were pretty dedicated to a single purpose (and entirely plastic) to the high-end academic. On the DIY side, most of the custom tables were simple in nature, often comprised of a storage container and scrap wood nailed or screwed together. I then did a second round of research – I asked my son what he would want.

575749_10151829611917646_1144757007_nWhat my boy wanted was pretty simple – he wanted to pour water between boxes and watch it flow. Further, much of his play used small buckets and other pouring implements, so a place to set them while playing sounded like a good addition. There were also a number of other things that he definitely wanted that are on the ‘future considerations’ list (e.g., being able to launch a rocket out of the table), but I found it extremely helpful to hear more about what he wanted…and he really liked being asked.

And so, I sketched out a simple plan and talked it over with the stakeholders (my son and wife Smile). After a few tweaks and refinements, I arrived at the simple plan to the right…and my son and I made the trip to Home Depot to pick get the materials.

As I moved along with the plan, I decided to do something I didn’t see very often in the DIY plans, I decided to do an angled cut on the walls of the water table. I did this primarily for aesthetics, but I believe it likely has a strength advantage as well (although I can’t prove it). While it did add some complexity for a newbie woodworker, I’ve gotten a lot of complements on how it came out visually.


The table itself is built from a few under the bed storage containers and pressure treated wood.

The containers were selected because they provided an easy way to provide a water-proof container for storing/playing in water, as well as the bonus that they have covers. An additional bonus to the containers is the ‘commodity’ nature of them – I can have 2-3 different containers (one for water, one full of sand, one full of rice or pasta) and swap them out quickly and easily from the table…thereby simplifying storage of the sensory raw materials.

WP_20130406_007For the wood, I decided to use pressure treated wood because of its strength, my desire to leave the table outside, as well as how good it looks in a backyard of evergreens. Returning to the goals for the table, I need the table to last a number of years – for both my boy now, as well as our little girls when they’re ready. The wood is quite a bit more expensive than your standard wood, but it will stand up much better to the elements and toddler abuse.

I also used the table as an opportunity to freshen up my tools. In most cases, a refresh was sorely needed, but there were other tools that I simply didn’t have. Below is a short list of the tools I used for the project:

  • Workbench to secure wood while cutting
  • Circular saw capable of a 45 degree cut
  • Cordless drill/screw gun
  • Hand sander (with rough sand paper to help ‘trim’ support wood and shelves)
  • Square for measuring the wood

The Build

For the table, the build is the most straight-forward part…and doesn’t detailed coverage if you can understand the basic plan I sketched out above.

Time wise, building the table took me about 12 hours, but it should take most folks about 8 hours. For me, the time delay happened mostly because I only had 2-3 hours to work at a time, which meant that I had to spread the build over five days (with each day having 15-30 minutes of setup/cleanup time with each sitting). Also, I had to relearn some basic wood working points, so there was a lot of inefficiencies in my build.

WP_20130413_005The process of building out the table was pretty simple, working my way from the top to the bottom of the table. Each tier is basically four pieces of wood, with the ends cut at 45 degree angles. I screwed the wood together at these angles, two screws from each side, to provide a strong hold. The sizing of each box is based on what is meant to be contained inside of it – be it a storage container, a shelf, or another tier that it supports.

For me, I did a lot of ‘winging it’ as I built the table. I started by measuring my non-negotiable pieces (the storage bins) and built the boxes around them. Taking this approach was the chief reason why I had to start from the top. For the shelves, also provided space for wood to be used as a shelf next to the storage containers, providing my son with a place to set his water toys. As I laid it out, I spaced it so that he would have a 2”x4” worth of wood for a shelf at each level – actually using a 2”x4” at the upper levels, but using a 2”x8” for shelves that also provided support for higher tiers (the shelves that you see that run along the “middle” of the middle and bottom tiers).

WP_20130413_006I then added supports under the storage containers and then the legs. While it felt like the bins would be okay using the lip of the wood alone, the added weight of the water felt like it might introduce a lot of stress over time. For the legs, I originally planned on having the legs all the same length for the table, and having them attached at the bottom tier. This changed as I progressed through the build for two reasons: (1) the storage container supports meant I couldn’t go as high (as you can see in the picture below), and (2) I had the great idea of using the legs to tie the tiers together.


WP_20130413_001As I started the design and build, the one element that continued to perplex me was how to secure the tiers together. When I first bought my supplies, I planned on using metal fasteners to secure them. What I ended up doing was actually a lot more clever (at least from my own biased perspective), I actually ended up letting the legs go up further into the higher tiers. As an example, you’ll notice that one of the legs is missing from the picture above – this ended up being secured to the top tier, per the picture to the right. For this leg, I actually screwed the top of the leg to one of the storage bin shelves…and then secured the middle tier to the leg along the sides. Which held pretty well.

To help bring things together, I also took advantage of the ‘toy shelves’. As I mentioned above, I used 2”x8” planks in the ‘middle’ of the bottom two tiers to extend under the wall of the higher tier (also a design change that occurred late in the build), allowing me to screw the higher tier to the shelf from below. Between the longer leg and the middle shelves, it held the table together pretty securely in a way I hadn’t been planning on when I did my original sketch.

Which brings me back to being flexible when doing something like this – while I had an idea in my head of how things would come together, seeing how the boxes placed and how things fit around them was very useful to me…I’d highly recommend anyone taking a similar journey also build out as they go along rather than trying to measure and cut everything, and then sit down to put it all together.

And the last step, of course, was to unleash quality assurance on the table. Needless to say, it passed QA testing. Smile


Cautionary Points

There were a few items that caused me some issues along the way, and I thought it was worth highlighting them here. Many of the below are newbie mistakes, and feel free to ignore them. Smile

  • Do rough cuts at the lumber center
    (Driving 10’ lumber is a pain unless you have a pickup truck; and the Home Depot was happy to cut my lumber up)
  • For your rough cuts, give yourself 2-4” extra
    (you want flexibility in case things shift…and most of the cuts are angled cuts anyway)
  • Verify that the saw is at 45 degree angle
    (for me, I started with the saw at about 47 degrees, which caused me lots of confusion)
  • Start with the top tier and work down
    (I touched on this in the build out section above, but I would have had a lot of heartache if I started at the bottom and moved up)
  • Measure for the outside edge
    (Going back to my earlier point of starting with your non-negotiable measurements, I measured the inside portion of the box and cut for that…not realizing that the saw starts at the ‘outside’ of the 45 degree cut…meaning the inside cut was an inch or two off of where I thought it would be)
  • A good square is invaluable
    (one in a triangle shape is even better, as it allows you to check measurements for both inside the box – where your water table lives – and outside the box – where the saw will cut)
  • Starter holes for the screws really help (duh)

Next steps

So, that’s my home made water table. It’s a pretty nice table – basic, but nice. Over the coming summer, I plan on starting to add some bells and whistles to make it more engaging.

  • Water piping into the containers to allow for water to flow out
  • Elevated slide/pipe between levels, possibly with a water wheel
  • Siphon for even more fun
  • Potentially a pump that can go below the bottom tier, to pump water from the bottom level and into the top tier

Cliff Simpkins


2 responses to DIY: Custom Water Table

  1. This is a great design. My husband is making a sensory table for our two little ones (10- & 23-months) for Christmas. I am going to show him this plan. I love it! And there is so much more you can do with it over time. Thanks for sharing!

  2. looks great!