I just finished a desk commissioned by some clients who wanted the piece to be made from a walnut log they’d had lying around a few years – in other words, longer than ideal. They had it sawn and kiln-dried this summer and brought the boards out to my shop in September.
My clients wanted to keep the live edges on the desktop, which posed a challenge: Their log had spent so much time on the ground that there was quite a bit of rot, especially in the sapwood. You could press a dent into some sections with a bare finger. In other places, chunks would break right off.
Did I mention that these clients had just adopted two kittens from the local animal shelter? As soon as I started working with the boards, it became clear that shredding the punky sapwood would be as irresistible for those kittens as popping bubble wrap is for me. Fortunately, some sections had not yet fallen victim to rot. I planned the design of the top around them.
In conversation with the clients, I came up with a plan inspired by one of the images they had found on the web. I adapted the original significantly, not least to meet the structural demands imposed by using solid wood. I wanted the overall design to remain spare and geometric while incorporating a couple of drawers and the requested keyboard tray. I thought it would be striking to make that tray with a live edge that would create a fluid interplay with the live-edge top above it.
Making the live-edge keyboard tray was more interesting than I’d expected. Here’s how I did it.
1. Choose Your Hardware
Keyboard trays generally feature a detent mechanism that keeps the tray from being pushed around during use. I used a pair of KV 8150. The slides come with brackets that mount to the underside of a desktop and they’re adjustable in height. Pay attention to any dimensional limits listed for the hardware, such as the 24″ maximum width indicated by the slides I used. Make sure you’re buying slides that will work with your design.
I wanted the bottom edge of the keyboard tray to be in line with the bottom edges of the adjacent drawers. There was not enough height adjustment in the hardware, but the live-edge stock was thick enough that I could glue it to the main section of the tray, which would be plywood, and leave the additional thickness to hang below.
To hide the front edge of the hardware I decided to notch the live edge around it, so I planned my workpiece to occupy the full width of the tray plus the thickness of the slides, leaving a gap of about 1/8″ between the live edge of the keyboard tray and the drawer at each side.
2. Choose the Live-Edge Piece
Keep in mind the design of the desk as a whole, Consider how much the front of the tray will protrude beyond adjacent parts, as well as the visual interplay of the tray’s edge with that of the top above it.
You could, of course, make the entire tray from solid wood. I decided to use veneer-core plywood for the main part, for the sake of stability and also to minimize the weight: The desk structure is quite minimal and the top is already heavy – it’s 5/4 walnut and holds two pairs of Blum Tandem drawer slides.
3. Stock Prep
Flatten the piece, then plane to your desired thickness.
4. Create a Straight Edge
Cut a straight edge at the back of the piece so that you can join it to a piece of veneer-core plywood or other solid boards to get the depth you need. I chalk a line, cut at the band saw, then joint the edge straight.
Because my old jointer was made with a fence locking system that resists staying square, I use it primarily for flattening, then rely on my table saw and a Forrest Woodworker II blade to get an edge that’s good to glue. But how to rip a straight edge when the opposite edge – the one that would normally be your reference – is live? Simple: I just set the fence to remove a narrow strip, using the jointed edge as my guide.
You could use biscuits or a shop-made spline to increase the glue surface area and keep the parts in plane with each other at the top. I have found that splines and biscuits are as likely to get surfaces just a little out of whack as they are to keep them dead-level. So I just butt-glued the parts together.
To avoid bruising the live edge I used rubber clamp jaw pads. They worked like a charm, even on the softer sapwood.
6. Clean Up
Clean up the top and bottom surfaces. To reinforce the joint I added a glue block, adhering it to the overhanging back edge of the solid strip and screwing it into the plywood, the underside of which in this case was prefinished (and so, not amenable to gluing), as shown in section 1 above.
This is another straightforward part. Simply mark the position of the notches by measuring the slide hardware and calculating how much the front edge needs to overhang at each side, clamp the tray in a vise, and cut with a backsaw.
Screw the tray into place using screws recommended by the hardware manufacturer.
Editor’s note: In case you’ve not already seen it, Nancy’s sublime Harris Lebus sideboard graces the November 2017 cover: