Trophy Coffee Table
Stunning Beauty Right from the Tree
By Dave Munkittrick
Big planks of wood with natural bark edges make my heart race. Most woodworkers share a desire to build something from a single, thick plank of wood. After 20 years of building custom cabinets and furniture, I finally got my chance.
The first step was finding that perfect slab of wood—not an easy task. Slicing a tree into planks, bark edge and all, is not a common sawmill practice. I started my hunt in the Yellow Pages under “Sawmills.” I found a number of people with portable mills, but without a log for them to saw, I was out of luck. I tried a few tree-trimming companies to see whether they had a tree trunk or two they needed to dispose of. Two strikes.
Finally, I turned to the Internet (Photo 1). I found the slab of my dreams: a huge (14- to 36-in.-wide x 12-ft.-long) slice of English Burly Wych Elm (pronounced “witch elm”) (see “Sources,” page 64). I knew immediately that this was the one. When the wood arrived at my door (Photo 2), I quickly realized that building with a single rough slab requires a completely different approach than working with individual boards.
On one hand, no decisions would be needed about grain pattern or color that individual boards require. With a single slab of wood, your only task is to present the natural beauty of the wood in the best way possible, despite all its inherent defects, such as loose bark pockets, rough edges, dirt, checks and cracks. On the other hand, just handling such an enormous yet delicate piece of wood presents some unique challenges.
I had a lot of fun building this table and you will, too, if you decide to build one like it. Because every natural-edged board is unique, it’s difficult to give an exact formula on how to design or build a natural-edge table. Even if they come from the same tree, no two boards are alike. What follows is my experience as I built this table in front of the camera.
After the wood was ordered, I couldn’t wait for it to arrive. With all my thoughts on possessing that piece of wood, I neglected to plan ahead and be ready for its arrival. I discovered the hard way that you can’t handle a large plank the way you can individual boards (Photo 2).
When we got the wood in the shop, I didn’t let practical considerations slow me down. Totally intoxicated by what was inside the crate, I felt a burning desire to see the wood, now! We popped the bands and lifted off the protective cover. My heart sank at what I saw: an enormous slice of tree that looked more like clay than a beautiful figured piece of wood (Photo 3). A quick slosh of mineral spirits over the surface restored my spirits (Photo 4).
The burl that grew around the Wych Elm tree came to life. Here was that amazing piece of wood I had seen on my computer screen. It was like no other piece of wood I’d seen before. It came from an old English estate and I can only imagine what the tree itself must have looked like—really, really gnarly. You could clearly see the normal grain of the elm in the center of the plank, but its edges were like one big, long burl. The swirling grain was punctuated by tight knots, each radiating small black cracks. The sight reduced us to a stunned stare. I knew we’d be able to breathe life back into this thing.
Of course, I had to see the other side of the plank as well. To avoid getting our fingers pinched as we turned the plank over, we let it drop. We heard a sickening crack and saw one of the beautiful burls lying limp at the plank’s side (Photo 5). That’s when this lesson finally hit home: You have to be very careful of the edges on a slab of wood like this. They are not only an integral part of the slab’s character but are also very fragile. With roughsawn boards, you can always trim off banged up edges—not so for a natural edge you want to preserve.
Enough mistakes: I constructed a “plank train” (Photo 6) to safely handle my precious slice of tree. Now, the plank was mobile, the edges protected and the wood at a height where we could easily lift and turn it for inspection. To help season the plank to my shop air, I set 1-1/4-in. stickers under the plank and draped a polyester dropcloth over the whole thing (Photo 7). As we rolled the slab to the back of the shop, my mind was mulling over how to repair that broken piece of burl.
Making the first cut
After the wood sat for several weeks in the shop, I was ready to start work on the table in earnest. Now came the scary part: deciding where to cut the plank. Just the thought of making that irreversible step put beads of sweat on my forehead. Our wood had a wild edge all along its length. Still, there were natural breaks where it made sense to crosscut the slab.
This plank was about 36 in. at the butt end and only 14 in. at the top. I wanted to use the widest section for my coffee table. It promised the best proportions with a rich selection of burl on each edge. The rest of the plank would be used for a matching sofa table and the remainder sold to a friend to help defray the cost. It seemed like one cut could be made just past a check that ran up the center of the butt end and the second cut about 50 in. farther up the plank. I made preliminary marks to help me explore where these crucial cuts should be made (Photo 8).
The plank dictated a wider coffee table than I had originally planned. Unlike making furniture from boards, you can’t do much to adjust the size of your piece when it’s a single plank. To be safe, I made a cardboard template of the proposed section and used it to check the fit in the room (Photo 9). Cardboard also made it easy to build and test different base designs. I settled on a simple design that’s a snap to build with butt joints and screws (Fig. B, below).
Now that I knew where I wanted to cut the plank, I wasn’t sure how I wanted that cut to look. Should the cut be angled? Straight? Free-form? I tried a rough cut first (Photo 10). Then I textured the cut with a chisel (Photo 11). Hmm—it simply wasn’t what I had in mind. I even used a jigsaw to cut a free-form edge and then a gouge to mimic the bark edge (Photo 12). I still wasn’t happy. I finally settled on a straight cut polished smooth. I took advantage of a split at the butt end of the plank to create an offset cut (Photo 13). Two quick cuts with a circular saw freed my coffee table from the plank. I was glad to have a much smaller piece of wood to move around. At the same time, I felt a touch of sadness at breaking up that long plank.
Bark side up?
OK, next question: Which side of the slab should be up? There was a lot to consider here. Did I want the bark edge up, making it a prominent element, or down, tucked under the edge. I liked the overall look of the edge tapering back underneath the top edge. On the other hand, this plank had such gnarly bark, it was a shame to hide it. Neither side had a defect severe enough to tip the scales. After flip-flopping both the plank and my decision, in the end, I went with the bark side down.
Fixing the broken burl
Now I turned my attention back to the broken piece of burl. Fortunately, the clean break would not require fancy repair work. Padded clamps applied enough pressure to hold the piece in place without damaging the burl edge. (Photo 14). I needed a strong, gap-filling glue with a fair amount of open time to do this repair. I chose epoxy because it does not require a lot of clamp pressure and epoxy’s gap-filling properties would fill the voids from any missing splinters of wood.
Making it flat
I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to flatten this monster board. Something crazy happened, though: I went to bed contemplating the problem and woke up with the answer. First I built a cradle in which to set the wood (Fig. A, bottom). The slab was shimmed up under the high spots so it wouldn’t rock (Photo 15) and wedged in place so it wouldn’t move (Photo 16). Then I fashioned a router carriage out of aluminum channel. The carriage rode on top of the rails and guided the router as it passed back and forth over the plank (Photo 17). I used a special bit called a bottom- cleaning bit (below). The bottom-cleaning bit cuts on both the bottom and the side. The bit’s 1-1/4-in. diameter helped shorten the duration of an odious task.
Starting with the bit set about 1/8-in. below the highest point on the plank, I began to flatten the board. I stepped the bit down in 1/8-in. increments until the whole surface was flat. Then I flipped the plank and milled the reverse side.
Most of the cracks were small and added to the wood’s natural beauty. Nevertheless, I wanted to fill a few stress cracks that ran across the plank’s grain. I used epoxy to fill the largest cracks (Photo 18). It dries to an amber color and blends well with a natural finish.
Cleaning Up the Bark Edge
I found a nylon brush attachment for my drill to be the perfect tool for cleaning the bark edge (Photo 19; see Sources, below). The stiff nylon brushes are embedded with an abrasive. They work to remove loose bark and dirt without scoring the wood like steel brushes do.
Sanding It Smooth
To smooth the top surface, I turned to my 4-in. belt sander (Photo 20) followed by my random-orbit sander. I started with an 80-grit belt and diagonal strokes for the initial sanding. I followed that with a 120-grit belt running with the grain. Then I switched to a 6-in. random-orbit sander. I backed up one grit when I switched from the belt sander to my random-orbit sander. Then I worked through the grits all the way to 220 grit.
Finishing the Top
I wanted a clear finish that could be applied to the gnarly bark edge without pooling and dripping. I chose a wipe-on polyurethane because it’s applied like an oil finish but it dries hard. It was easy to work into the bark edges. Daubing the wet bark with a dry rag was all it took to clean up the excess finish. Be sure to put as many coats on the bottom as you do on the top.
Attaching the Base
I screwed the base to the top through cleats glued along the base’s top edge (Photo 21). At the outside edges where grain movement is an issue, I drilled oversized holes and used washer-head screws.
(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)
Hearne Hardwoods, hearnehardwoods.com, 888-814-0007, English Burly Wych Elm, 8/4 x 26 in. x 12 ft.
MLCS, mlcswoodworking.com, 800-533-9298, 1-1/2-in. bottom-cleaning bit, #7942.
Epoxy Heads, epoxyheads.com, 866-376-9948, 1 quart of resin, $30. 1/2 pint of hardener.
MSC Industrial Supply Co., mscdirect.com, 800-645-7270, Nylon cup brush, medium, #00549204.
Fig. A: Flattening Carriage
Fig. B: Base
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker July 2006, issue #122.
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. I found the perfect plank for my coffee table on the Internet. It was a 12-ft.-long slab of Burly English Wych Elm. It was like no other piece of wood I’d ever seen. I couldn’t wait.
2. The day the wood arrived, I had to call on a couple of neighbor friends just to get the crate in the shop!
3. Whoa! What a disappointment. The wood had the dull, grey appearance of a corpse. This wasn’t what I was expecting.
4. A slosh of mineral spirits gave us a glimpse of what to expect from the finished wood. My own spirits were restored; I really did have a treasure on my hands.
5. Oops! In my excitement to see the other side, I managed to snap off a burl as we flipped the plank. I felt like a greenhorn.
6. My hindsight kicked in. I built a “plank train” from shop carts and chipboard. Now, the plank was mobile, the edges protected and the wood at a height for easy handling.
7. It was time to let the plank acclimate to my shop for a few weeks. Stickers exposed both sides of the plank to the air. A plastic tarp slowed the moisture exchange.
8. Deciding where to make that first cut was nerve-racking. I used chalk to rough out where the cuts might be made. I like chalk because it’s easy to see and I can “erase” it with a stiff brush. The broken burl was set in place for reference.
9. I made a cardboard template of the proposed tabletop. I wanted to see how it would fit my living room. I also used cardboard to play around with base designs.
10. Now that I knew where I was going to make the cuts, I had to decide how they would look. First, I tried rough and raw right from a chainsaw. It looked cool but too rustic.
11. I tried a little texture with a shallow gouge chisel, but it was a bit busy for my taste.
12. I even carved the end to mimic the free-form bark edge. It was fun to do, but it seemed a bit heavy-handed and fought for attention with the natural bark edge. I wanted some contrast.
13. Finally, I chose a straight cut sanded smooth to 220 grit. A little oil made it look like polished marble. I took advantage of a split at the butt end of the plank to create an offset cut.
14. I reattached the broken burl with epoxy. A board on top held the burl in place and wax paper kept the board from being glued to the plank. Padded clamps pulled the broken piece snug.
15. The next task was flattening the rough plank. I built a simple cradle to hold the rough wood. Shims supported the slab and kept it from rocking.
16. I wedged the wood in the cradle to keep it from moving around.
17. I used a router in a sliding carriage to flatten the top. A wide bit made the task a little less tedious.
18. Before sanding the top, I reached for the epoxy again, this time to fill a few unsightly cracks. Epoxy blends well with the natural finish I was planning to use.
19. An abrasive-impregnated nylon-bristle brush worked beautifully to clear away loose bark and dirt from the edges.
20. A belt sander followed by a random-orbit sander smoothed the top.
21. I decided to make a simple plywood base that wouldn’t compete visually with the top. I fastened it to the top through cleats screwed onto the base’s top edge.