Live Edge Coffee Table
Create a showpiece coffee table on a minimal budget.
- Belt Sander
- Orbital Sander
- Hand Planer
- Furniture Maker
My wife and I could never agree on the right coffee table. Something at a reasonable price that was childproof, managed the clutter of remotes and magazines, and easy to clean after dinners watching tv. To be honest our price point was $300 which is laughable if you want real wood.
We did find a few at that price that survived for a few months each. With our new baby, anything with glass top went to the in-laws. Our last table from Ikea delaminated from the heat when we fumigated our old house. At our new place we went back to Ikea. Fortunately some of the functional requirements where split between 2 rooms. The new Ikea table handled kid's crayons, tv dinners, and real life. We needed something nicer in the proper living room. This turned out to be harder because $300 had become a psychological limit.
At some point I saw some live edge tables and thought it would be a nice organic shape that would work with our living room which has a big curved wall on 1 side and is rectangular on the others. Most prices I saw where north of a $1000.
Facing a slow summer between film projects I thought I would try it myself I Saw one blog from sucasa that made it seem manageable. I started googling live edge slab and other variants looking for the right lumber yard.
Opportunity presented itself with a hiatus between shows and a listing on ebay for a redwood slab at http://stores.ebay.com/jswoodz. This man from Sacramento was sealing a redwood slab for a reasonable $150. Redwood is soft enough to be workable, beginner friendly but not as cheap as pine. I knew it wouldn't be the same as ash or walnut but frankly those harder more expensive woods were intimidating.
Process: sanding & planing
For 3 weeks, I was out every morning in 90 degree heat working away on this slab.
A brief digression into equipment. I bought 2 cheap plastic sawhorses from home depot and a 50 dollar belt sander from OSH. My shop was a covered patio in my backyard.
The belt sander took care of the grooves from the saws that cut the slab.I worked on the edges with a steel brush. The surface was taken care of with an orbital sander.
It felt smooth and then I realised the the whole piece had a bit of a bow. Another trip to the hardware store netted me a hand planer. Another week of planing, belt sanding and find sanding got the slab down to perfectly flat.
After 4 weeks the slab was ready to varnish. With more experience and cooler temperatures I could probably halve the time.
Process of stain and varnishing it.
At this point I had to decide whether to go with a water or an oil based approach to finishing the table. I chose oil because I had oil based stains lying around. I would chose oil again because its more workable and forgiving.
The first coat was danish oil to heighten the contrast. My wife didn't trust my brush skills and went at it.
Then she went at the top with the a varnish and failed. We hit the pitfalls of inexperience vs all the information on the internet. Basically we had a lot of visible brush marks that successive coats of varnish were not helping.
I ended up stripping the top back to bare wood and starting the whole process a second time with Danish oil .
I banished my wife from the project and took over the varnish stage. This time I diluted the varnish with 1 part mineral spirits to 4 parts varnish and started each coat early in the morning when it's just around 70°F. I used a foam brush to thinly flood the top and then did a "tipping off" pass to pop any air bubbles etc. The trick was thinning it and applying it at a cool enough temperature that the varnish could self level before it thickens.
Varnish makers won't advocate for thinning their product. Our state has strict laws regarding VOC counts. I'm unclear how you would dilute a water based varnish if its too thick.
I love the Nakashima tables with wood dowel legs but turning dowels is way beyond my skills and tools.
I ordered a variation of a 50's style hairpin leg from this Columbus Ohio based store.
Their original legs have a third vertical and an adjustable foot. I though the last feature would come in handy if my slab wasn't perfectly flat. The legs were gorgeous, and relatively easy to screw on to the slab. They are raw steel so after some more internet research I found a beeswax-carnauba wax furniture polish to seal them from moisture.
On film jobs when I was lighting, we tend to pick apart images before finaling. I was at a critique of one particularly tough shot that we were scrutinizing and found a flaw. A coordinator mentioned how the Navajos' made a tear in the blankets because perfection was not human?
My first ding was right at the leg mounting stage. I flipped the table upside down right on top of a tiny pebble that I had probably tracked in to the living room. I felt a momentary pang of sadness, even a bit of anger that my wife (banished by me) wasn't able to help at this stage. But a few minutes after screwing the legs on finally the finished table looked good. For a flaw, it was so minor, that one flaw wasn't terrible.
I am very happy and relieved with how nicely it turned out.
If you are curious, the tree in the background is a wall decal from designwithaz. The trunk comes in 2 sheets, the flowers had to be placed individually. It's slightly more challenging than the how-to video.
- Value - I have champagne taste and a beer budget. You may be able to make something way nicer than you could buy.
- Ownership - It's your baby and you will love it more than anything from a store, warts and all.
- Physical health - It's a workout, not necessarily in that Karate Kid wax in wax out frame of mind or Howard Roark breaking rocks in a quarry.
- Mental health 1 - It's purposeful, and a furniture project often fulfills a real need, a concrete end that proves self-reliance.
- Mental health 2 - Dealing with real world constraints. When someone else is doing the hard work out of sight out of mind, or you are working with a digital medium that's easily reworked its harder to know when to stop. Sure you can futz forever to get rid of a minor imperfection but the sheer labor will convince most sane people to accept their work's flaws at some point and realize its good enough.