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How to Turn a Wood Slab Into a Table

Rustic wood meets modern metal to create this striking—and timeless—piece of furniture. Tom Silva and Kevin O’Connor show how to make a live-edge console table of your own

The wood in Most solid-wood furniture has been sawn, planed, peeled, and sanded into uniform planks, panels, and boards. That simplifies the building process, but obliterates virtually any sign that the material once came from trees growing in a forest. Not so with this console table. Its top is fashioned from two 2-inch-thick slabs sliced from the trunk of a Norway maple. The tree’s “live edges” are basically untouched—the bark was removed because it would fall off eventually—so they retain the natural undulations and wormholes that give this piece its distinctive character.

Local sawmills can be good sources of live-edge slabs; that’s where TOH general contractor Tom Silva bought the ones for this project. You can also find them online in a wide range of sizes and species. Whatever the source, pay close attention to the slabs’ moisture content (MC) and drying method. Ideally, a moisture meter should show an MC in the 6 to 8 percent range. Slabs with a higher MC could warp or split as they dry. Kiln-drying, not air-drying, the wood should get the MC into the desired range, and kill any bugs ensconced there. Even so, acclimate your slabs indoors for a few weeks before starting work.

Shown: Tom proudly shows off the live-edge console table that he and Kevin assembled from steel hairpin legs and two thick slabs of Norway maple.

Hairpin legs: I-Semble 28-inch table legs, four for $50; Rockler.

Wood slabs: The Rustic Wood Shop.

Step 1

Overview

Illustration by Doug Adams

Console table steps

  1. Cut inside edges.
  2. Remove bark.
  3. Sand live edges.
  4. Glue cut edges.
  5. Clamp.
  6. Trim ends.
  7. Sand top.
  8. Rout and chisel leg mortises.
  9. Brush on shellac sealer.
  10. Wipe on tung oil finish.
Step 2

Trim Two Edges

Photo by Webb Chappell

Determine whether the live edge will face up or down. (Here, Tom chose “up.”) Then decide which live edges you want to keep. Slice off the others using a track saw, as shown, or a circular saw and edge guide. Clean, straight rip cuts are a must.

Step 3

Remove the Bark

Photo by Webb Chappell

Tree bark won’t remain attached for long, so it’s best to take it off. Set a chisel at the line between the bark and the wood, as shown, and tap it with a hammer. The bark should come loose in long strips.

Step 4

Make a Faux Live Edge

Photo by Webb Chappell

One end of this board had a sawn edge where a limb was cut off. Rather than shorten the table, Tom approximated the contours of a live edge by wiggling a reciprocating saw back and forth while making the cut, as shown.

Step 5

Smooth the Edges

Photo by Webb Chappell

Starting with 50-grit paper on a soft pad, sand off the remaining bark and begin smoothing the wood. Here, Tom uses a rotary sander attached to a vacuum. Take care not to remove the surface irregularities that give a live edge its unique appearance.

Step 6

Apply the Glue

Photo by Webb Chappell

Cover the workbench against glue drips and rest both boards face up on 2x supports. With bar clamps at the ready, squeeze wood glue onto the cut edge of one board and spread it evenly from end to end, as shown. Wipe away any glue drips on the board face with a wet cloth.

Step 7

Clamp

Photo by Webb Chappell

Line up the boards’ cut edges and put the clamps’ bars above and under the top to prevent cupping. Wipe up the excess glue and wait at least a half hour before removing the clamps. Trim the ends with a circular saw. Smooth the top and edges with a random-orbit sander and, in order, 80-, 120-, 150-, 180-, and 220-grit papers.

Step 8

Rout the Leg Mortises

Photo by Colleen McQuaid

The underside of the tabletop isn’t milled flat, so it could rock if the legs were just screwed to it directly. To prevent that, Tom made a leveling jig for a plunge router (see Tip in Step 9) to cut mortises- for the legs’ bases all on the same plane. To use the jig, turn the slab upside down and shim it up to just below the jig’s rails. Next, hold each leg in position and trace around its base. Place the jig’s sled over one base outline, lower the router, and lock its depth when the bit touches wood. If the bit clears the wood at the next outline, unlock and lower the router again, and relock it. But if the bit lifts the sled above the rails, don’t change the depth setting; move to the next outline. Repeat at the other outlines to find the lowest depth setting. Then rout all the mortises to that depth by moving the sled, as shown.

Step 9

Make a Leveling Jig

Photo by Colleen McQuaid
  • Rails Each one should be exactly the same width (a bit wider than the top’s thickness), dead flat on both edges, and about a foot longer than the top. Clamp them to the bench on either side of the top.
  • Router sled Make it out of a 1-inch-thick board a bit wider than the router base and twice as long as the span between the rails. Using a hole saw, cut a 2-inch hole in the sled’s center—large enough to let you see the spinning bit.
  • Router mount Center the chuck over the hole and attach the router base to the sled. Here, Tom used notched 2x scraps to hold the base in place.
Step 10

Square the Mortise Corners

Photo by Colleen McQuaid

To square up the rounded corners left by the router bit, hold a sharp chisel, as shown, with the bevel facing toward the mortise and the blade in line with the mortise edge. Give the chisel a tap, then do the same on the adjacent side to create a 90-degree corner. Repeat with the other mortises.

Step 11

Attach the Legs

Photo by Colleen McQuaid

Set the base of each leg into an L-shaped mortise and drill a pilot hole at each mounting hole in the leg base. Using an impact driver, fasten all the 3⁄4-inch pan-head screws provided with the hairpin legs. The table should be rock steady when set upright.

Step 12

Seal the Top

Photo by Colleen McQuaid

Wipe the top and edges with denatured alcohol to remove any dust. Brush on a coat of amber shellac, as shown, to seal the wood and give it a warm hue. When the finish is dry, in about 30 minutes, lightly hand-sand with 320-grit paper and top-coat with a more durable finish, as explained in the next step.

Step 13

Oil the Top

Photo by Colleen McQuaid

Wearing disposable gloves, wipe off the sanding dust with a cloth dampened in mineral spirits. Here, Tom uses a second cloth to apply a coat of tung oil/varnish blend over the shellac. After 5 to 10 minutes, buff the oil evenly with a third cloth. To prevent spontaneous combustion, dispose of all used cloths in a bucket filled with water. Wait 24 hours before applying and buffing out a second coat of oil. Additional coats are optional, but will increase gloss and protection. If you’d rather use a finish other than tung oil, that’s fine; shellac is compatible with them all. Coat the underside in the same way as the top to limit seasonal wood movement.