After graduating from school and starting my first real job, I moved into a nice new townhouse that was miles better than anywhere I had lived before. Thus, my dining table (a 3rd gen IKEA table I had purchased from a subletter for $20) looked distinctly... out of place. I promptly decided we needed a new one, and began hunting. Turns out, tables are kind of expensive, and I adamantly refused to spend $300 on a new table for the house. Which is why I decided to make one myself.. and spend $700 in the process.
Table hunting had opened my eyes to the beauty of live-edge tables, but the sticker shock (most were $2000+) made this an unfeasible goal. But in the end, weren't they just essentially a piece of wood that's been sanded a bunch? Hell, I could do that myself, I reckoned.
And so that's exactly what I did... despite a lack of any prior woodworking experience (mostly accurate) and child-like, foolish confidence that I'd be able to handle whatever challenges were thrown my way (mostly wrong).
I started with a $150, 12'x2.5' slab of reclaimed Douglas Fir I found at a re-use shop in the industrial area of Seattle. I had them cut the slab in half for me, giving me two sections about 6' each. Below is what the slab looked like when I first got it back into my garage.
After removing the bark, and doing an initial pass with the sander, I used a skillsaw to cut one of the live "edges" off each slab, with the intent of joining them together to get a table that would be the full-width of a dining table.
Unfortunately, on a cut over 6' in length, the smallest diversion can wreck havoc, and the halves weren't lining up as clean as I would have liked them to. As a result, I had to take the slabs to John at IsGood Woodworks, to have them re-cut on a table saw that could handle the size of the boards. Here are the two slabs lined up next to each other but not joined:
Before I sanded too much, I wanted to get the two halves attached to each other to ensure I'd be sanding uniformly across the table. To enable this table to hold up to the worst my friends could throw at it, I installed dowels about every 6 inches across the length of the table. I drilled the holes using a custom-built jig that would only let the drill go deep enough to contain half of the dowel. While I was glad this would be a sturdy table, doing so many dowels ended up being the most frustrating part of this project for me.
Because the table was almost 6' in length, getting each dowel hole to line up with its respective partner on the adjacent slab was a nightmare. I was never able to get a truly seamless join between the two halves, despite my every attempt to remedy the situation, leaving a small gap about 1-2mm between the halves. While this gap largely disappeared as I continued working on the table, it was frustrating knowing that I'd never truly be able to make it go away.
After getting the two halves successfully joined using dowels and basic wood glue, the next step in the process was to sand this bad boy down. I wanted a smooth, glass-like finish, which meant sanding, sanding, and more sanding, then planing, carving, etching, and more. Thus, this project required quite a variety of tools to accomplish.
Luckily for me, just about the only thing I had to purchase was new sandpaper. My dad was a mechanical genius, and I was able to raid his workshop for nearly everything I needed. I relied heavily on an electric palm sander, but occasionally had to use hand sanders for tricky angles/spots, and hand planers also proved extremely useful here for getting leveling out spots that jutted up too far. My great grandfather, Russell Thompson, was a skilled carpenter, and it was his hand tools that I used for this project. It was both humbling and exciting to be able to channel their legacies to bring my own work to life here!
After about 2 months of sanding off and on, I finally realized what an idiot I was and rented a belt sander. With the belt sander, I did in about 15 minutes what would have taken me weeks with the palm sander. I should have had one of these guys from the get-go and saved myself 30-40 hours of sanding in the garage. Still bitter about how foolish that was...
Okay, now this thing is finally starting to come together! I had originally planned to construct the legs myself, but after visiting several local wood shops that sold live-edge tables, I became enamored with the hyper-popular look right now of matching live-edge table tops with steel legs.
I found SteelImpression on Etsy - a craftsman in California who could make many different types of legs. I was fairly satisfied with the pricing, and had him build me a set of "X" tube legs to the dimensions I needed. I placed the order, and within a week these guys had showed up at my front door, just as promised. I was very satisfied with the whole affair, and would definitely buy from him again!
The second step I wanted was to install bowtie keys across the top of the table. Bowtie keys/joints are embedded into the wood over a crack/join between two pieces of wood, and their "bowtie" shape prevents the wood from expanding further. While this was unlikely to ever be an issue for me, I wanted to find some keys that could match my steel legs. Eventually I found Grant at Ballard Machine Works, just a few minutes from my place. I did some cardboard mockups, modeled it in 3D, and had my friend turn it into a schematic for Grant.
While I was waiting for the legs and bowtie keys to arrive, I decided to move ahead with finishing the table. I headed over to Dalys in Fremont, where they promptly course-corrected me from my original plan to apply a layer of boiled linseed oil and to instead use teak oil, which is much better for the Douglas Fir that I was working with. The teak oil helped bring out the natural grain patterns in the wood, and added a small amount of color saturation to the wood. I then used Dalys CrystalFin Satin finish, which repels water extremely well, but most importantly, does not leave a high gloss finish. I wanted to avoid the overly-glossy/epoxy look that many tables get, and instead leave it looking more natural like raw wood. 12 hours and 3 coats later, the wood was starting to look good!
The final step was to install the bowtie keys, which came out fantastic thanks to Grant's skilled craftsmanship. In retrospect, I definitely should have waited to finish the wood until after embedding the bowtie keys. The finish was easily dented when I was working with the router and chisels, and made it more difficult to achieve a "clean cut" into the wood.
Bowtie keys finally installed! The challenging part about putting these in was trying to figure out the right depth to make the cut. While in theory I knew the exact height of the metal, and could cut the exact depth, any stray piece of material, a slightly angled edge, or a minor imperfection could drastically change how these guys went in. And once they're in, there's no going back. Unfortunately my first two ended up sticking up about 1/32nd of an inch of the table, while the other two were inlayed at just about the right height. I thought about trying to shave down the keys that stick up, but decided there was too much risk of damaging the table in the process, and thus decided that I would tell everyone that was intentionally done. I don't know why... but intentional, nonetheless.
So... was it worth it? Yes - but needless to say I hope I don't have to sand another piece of wood for at least a year. I could certainly do another table in much less time and at a significant less cost, but I won't be taking orders anytime soon.