This live-edge tree slice table is made from a horizontal cut of the trunk of a mulberry tree. I made the legs, my new version of DIY industrial pipe legs, from steel lamp pipe and brass fittings.
As I mentioned in the “About” section, I originally became interested in making furniture in order to furnish our three-season sunroom. I intended to rehabilitate the sunroom from being a storage area, and before that when the kids were little, a playroom. (I say “intended” because the sunroom is now my
workshop studio.) I was looking for furniture that I could make, having limited skills, tools, and budget. The first type of furniture that caught my eye was the live-edge style. “Live edge” refers to furniture where the natural edge of the wood is incorporated into the design of the piece. It was popularized by George Nakashima in the middle of the last century. Live-edge furniture can be deceptively complex, with emphasis on craftsmanship, sanding, and finishing. Because of the limitations I mentioned, I am making simple live-edge tables made of a “slice” of the tree, with legs. It is an uncomplicated style, rustic and elegant all rolled together!
The Live Edge Side Table project has six main parts:
- Finding, Choosing, and Drying Wood
- Removing Bark
- Optional: Leveling Tree Slice with Router
- Sanding and Finishing
- Making the Lamp Pipe Legs
- Attaching the Legs to the Tree Slice
FINDING, CHOOSING, AND DRYING WOOD
Where to Get Wood
First, you will need to find a piece of wood you like. I often get mine from people advertising on Craigslist that they want to get rid of the wood from trees they cut down. I also get some wood from a tree service business near my house that has wood to give away. You may have friends, family, neighbors who have cut down a tree. Maybe you had one of those rustic glam weddings and have some tree slice decorations left over, and you are wondering how to preserve the memories in making something useful and lasting with the wood. You can also find tree slices that have been dried and planed (leveled) for sale on places like eBay and Etsy.
How Heavy and How Not Rotted and Not Bug Infested
There are some things to look for and consider when deciding what wood to get. Decide how big and heavy you are willing to work with. My upper limit is about 75 lbs because if it is heavier than that I need someone to help me move it, and I don’t always have someone around. There is a wood weight calculator at WOODWEB that you can use to determine how much a piece of wood weighs based on what type of wood it is and its dimensions. I would love a 36-inch diameter coffee table, but I just don’t want to work with something that heavy.
Don’t bring home wood that is rotted or bug infested. (Nobody likes it!) Rotted wood is soft and can be broken by hand or dented with a finger, and it often has mold growing on it. The bugs I really try to avoid are termites. And they like rotted wood.
You will probably want to get a tree slice that has roughly the same thickness throughout, within about an inch (and less is better).
Starting with a flat, uniform-thickness tree slice will save you much effort later if you want a flat, uniform-thickness table. In a subsequent section, I’ll also show you how to flatten wood using a router, but many of you may not want to get on that train. So if, after you read over that section, you decide it’s not for you, get the flattest (most uniform-thickness) tree slice you can get. You’ll be able to get it looking nice with a sander.
Get Wood That You Like to Look At
Another main consideration when choosing your wood is that you get something that looks nice to you. There is plenty of wood out there waiting for you, with interesting wood grain, color, knot patterns. If you are planning to paint your table, the shape and contours will be more important. You might not know or care to know what kind of wood it is, but I suggest you get something you like to look at–that’s the important thing.
Drying Wood and Using “Wet”
Now, about drying the wood. This is an issue for furniture making. You see, wood from trees that have just been cut is “wet,” also called “green.” The wood of living trees contains a high percent of water, often 80 percent or more. Wood stock used in furniture is usually about 10 percent water, or a little less. Uh-Oh.
Once the wood is cut, the wood starts to lose water. The rate of water loss depends on many factors including the kind of wood, the size of the piece of wood, and the air temperature and humidity that the wood is stored in, but letting a tree slice air dry could take years to get to 10 percent water content. To speed things up, commercial lumber is air dried for a few months then processed through kilns in a controlled way to a low water content, usually about 7-12 percent, taking months rather than years to dry. You might be able to find a lumberyard that will, for a fee, dry your wood. I didn’t find any in my area.
So what did I do? I waited–but not intentionally. I leveled some pieces of wood with my router, then “life got in the way.” I stacked my wood in the garage on a shelving unit and knew I’d get back to it sooner or later. Well, it was about 2 years before I got back to my live edge wood.
In that time, most of my pieces of wood air dried to about 10 percent moisture, perfect for making furniture. If you are curious like me, you can buy a moisture meter to measure the water content of the wood (The digital reading of the moisture meter in the photo below is upside down.)
So what are you going to do? You pick out the perfect piece of wood for your table. It’s wet wood and you should wait a few years for it to air dry, but you are geared up now to make your lovely side table, and can’t bear the thought of waiting years to make it. Did I get that right?
The “Short Answer” on Using Wet Wood
Here is what I would suggest. Make your simple live-edge side table with wet wood. But expect some changes as the wood is drying.
What Will Happen To Your Wood As It Is Drying?
There is a good chance it will get small cracks radiating from the pith–the small dot in center of the tree slice–or some other assortment of surface cracks (photo on left, below). It might get a big, awesome, “all-in” crack from the pith to the outer edge (photo on right, below).
Cracking is normal for wood that contains the pith, such as the tree slices used for side tables. Also, these tree slices contain both heartwood and sapwood and will tend to crack when drying. This is because heartwood and sapwood lose water and shrink at different rates, and this sets up forces which favor cracking. Sometimes, and it really is just luck, I have thick cross section tree slices not crack. At least not yet. Even when my wood has cracked, it rarely has made the wood unstable or unusable. In the live edge furniture style, cracks are accepted and even celebrated and are often highlighted by adding interesting butterfly joints as design elements. So don’t be alarmed if your side table gets cracks as it dries.
George Nakashima dining table (1967) with butterfly joints. Photo credit: 1stdibs.
The chunk of wood I used for this side table project was from a red mulberry tree. It’s a very pretty reddish-yellow color with delicate grain. It is an irregularly-shaped slice through the tree trunk and roughly 15 inches by 17 inches diameter. Before I flattened it (described in a subsequent section), it was 4 1⁄2 inches high on one side and 6 1⁄2 inches on the other. I picked it up from an ad on Craigslist, and it appeared to be recently cut.
Just a note: you don’t have to remove the bark from your wood before you make your table, but eventually the bark will most likely fall off on its own. Maybe not always, but usually it does.
- palm or random orbital sander
For bark removal, I use an old chisel and a hammer. I start by placing the chisel where the bark meets the wood and then hit the end of the chisel with the hammer.
Sometimes bark comes off in big chunks, and sometimes it’s stubborn. This time it was stubborn. I just kept whacking at it until I was tired and not getting much more off.
Then I sanded the sides with a palm sander and some by hand until I was happy with how it looked. I just did rough sanding with 150 grit sandpaper at this point, and did fine sanding later when I was working on the top and bottom surfaces. As an aside, I always wear a dust mask when sanding, because wood dust is very hard on the lungs. I don’t mention this enough.
OPTIONAL: LEVELING WOOD WITH A ROUTER
If you are not planning to level your wood with a router, skip to the next section.
Important safety reminders:
Wear a dust mask when flattening with a router. There are a lot of wood bits generated when routing and your lungs don’t like it.
Also, whenever you are adjusting the router cutting depth, unplug your router. Every. Single. Time.
If you want a super flat tree slice or stump side table that is the same thickness throughout, this is how to do it. Flatten it using a router and jig.
Sometimes, depending on the wood and/or the legs I plan to use, I like to flatten to even thickness. Sometimes it is just fine a little uneven. I had intended to leave this mulberry tree slice uneven thickness, and I was going to use wood legs that could easily be made longer or shorter. I could keep the table top level by adjusting the leg lengths. Then I decided to make legs out of lamp pipe and fittings, and I thought it would look better with an even-thickness piece of wood. Also, it would be easier to leave all the lamp parts legs the same length.
As I mentioned, my mulberry slice was two inches thicker on one side than the other, and so I decided to level it with the router jig method. If you have a tree slice that is roughly within than an inch of being the same thickness throughout, it usually is not too hard to use a hand planer and sander to even it.
- router sled
- router flattening jig platform and risers
- router flattening jig guide rails
- router flattening jig leveling helpers
- plunge router (or trim router) with flat router bit
When I was first trying to figure out how to level a stump, I searched for information on the web. I found this article in Fine Woodworking: Router Jig Turns Stumps into Beautiful Side Tables by Nick Offerman. Here is their plan for the flattening jig. I patterned my jig after this, but made it simpler.
I made an easy router sled using two 1 1⁄2 in x 14-gauge x 36 in zinc-plated slotted angles from Home Depot as the rails. I connected the slotted angle irons with 16 inch long 1 1⁄2 inch square boards using screws and washers.
When you make yours, set the distance between the rails to the diameter of your router base.
Set the distance between the square wood pieces to the distance between your flattening jig guide rails. You’ll see what I mean below.
I now use a trim router from Harbor Freight (1⁄4 in.collet, 2.4 amp) for leveling. I previously had a 2.5 hp plunge router and when it broke, I decided to try it with a trim router. It works fine, just slower. But for small jobs that I do infrequently, like leveling tree stump slices, it’s okay.
For the base and towers I used an IKEA Lack side table, turned upside down. Does this count as one of the coveted IKEA hacks? I’m not sure. Anyway, you can construct your own base and towers or improvise like I did. The IKEA Lack side table will only work for tree stump slices up to about 15 inches diameter. Bigger than that and you need the Lack coffee table! Below is a photo of the parts for my router flattening jig. Follow along and I’ll show you how to assemble it.
I lay two smaller square boards on opposite sides of the platform. I call these leveling helpers. These are optional, but I found they save time leveling the guide rails.
Then I set the guide rails on the leveling helpers and clamp the guide rails to the towers. I make sure the guide rails are level. As I’m routing and need to lower the guide rails, I remove the leveling helpers and set the guide rails on the level ground (or switch to smaller width guide rail depending on the particular piece of wood).
Here is a photo of my router flattening jig set up with my tree stump slice. Remember when I said before that I’d tell you later how far apart to set the boards of the router sled? Well the time is now. Notice that the boards of the router sled sit flush against the outside of the flattening jig guide rails. So get your flattening jig set up and then measure this distance then make your router sled accordingly.
Before you start routing, check the platform that the tree stump is sitting on and the router sled to be sure they are level. Shim the platform and adjust the guide rails as needed.
Also, secure the piece of wood by installing some screws in the platform to sort of wedge it in place.
I started on the highest part of my stump. I lowered my router bit to about 1⁄4 inch lower than the highest point and moved my router across the wood (from right to left in the photo). (Follow instructions on your particular router on how to set your router depth.) After the first pass, I moved the sled forward toward me about half an inch and again moved the router across the wood from right to left. I continued: made a pass with the router, moved the router sled forward, made a pass, moved the router sled, and so on. Eventually the wood was lower than the router bit, and the router was no longer cutting wood. The router depth needed to be lowered. I moved the router sled back to the “starting” position, adjusted the router depth to 1⁄4 inch lower than the new highest point, and did passes as before.
I continued routing using this procedure until my mulberry stump slice was the same thickness throughout. Then I flipped the slice over and did the same to the other side.
SANDING AND FINISHING
- Minwax Polyurethane, clear satin (or other finish to your liking)
- paint brush
I evened out the ridges left by the router with a belt sander and 80 grit sandpaper. You could also do this rough sanding with a reciprocating sander or palm sander.
I then sanded with a reciprocating sander and 100 grit, 150 grit, and 220 grit sandpaper. I did final sanding by hand with 220 grit sandpaper, sanding in a circle with the grain.
I finished with three coats of Minwax Polyurethane, clear satin.
MAKING THE LAMP PIPE LEGS
The lamp parts needed to make the legs are specialty items, and the only place that I have found that has all the parts is Grand Brass. So I have included Grand Brass links to the specific parts.
Supplies for the Legs:
PER LEG (multiply quantities by the number of legs you want)
- one brass flange with 1/8 ips female threaded hole (Grand Brass link here)
- one 14 in. x 1/8 ips female threaded unfinished steel pipe (Grand Brass link here) Note: you may want a different length. (Also available in antique brass finish steel, unfinished aluminum, unfinished brass, unfinished copper, and polished nickel plated steel. See Grand Brass pipes here for other lengths and pipe types. Be sure to get female threaded 1/8 ips pipe.)
- one 5/8 in. brass ball with 1/8 ips female tapped blind hole (Grand Brass link here) (Also available in nickel.)
- two 3/4 in x 1/8 ips threaded hollow zinc plated steel nipples (Grand Brass link here)
I made these legs with unfinished steel, which is the least expensive pipe option, and I like how it looks. It comes with an oily film that prevents rust. This needs to be cleaned off. The pipes also have milling marks, which isn’t a big problem, hardly noticeable, but I decided to remove them with sandpaper. Then after drying, I sealed the pipe to prevent subsequent rusting. I cleaned the brass flanges and balls, but didn’t sand or seal them.
Here’s the details. Wash the pipe, flanges, and balls with dish soap and a Scotch Bright sponge or #0000 steel wool. Set the flanges and balls aside to dry.
To remove milling marks on the pipes, I sanded them while wet with 220 grit sandpaper until they were shiny and the milling marks were gone. After this, I let them dry. Rust will (usually) start developing as they dry because the raw steel no longer has the protective oily coating. I removed the fine rust and sealed them in the same step by wetting a piece of an old cotton t-shirt with Minwax Wipe-On-Poly and rubbing out the rust. I gave them three coats total of Wipe-On-Poly. I don’t seal the brass flanges and balls, because I like the patina that forms if solid brass is left unfinished. However, you can finish them the same way as the steel pipes if you want to.
Assembling the legs is so easy! Twist a nipple onto the flange, leaving about half an inch out the small end as shown in the photo below. Twist a nipple onto the ball to the bottom of the threads in the ball. Then screw the nipples onto the each end of the pipe. Tighten by hand. If you want more permanent assembly, you can use JB Weld (or similar) to glue the flanges and balls in place.
ATTACHING THE LEGS TO THE TREE SLICE
- drill and bit
- #6 x 1 inch screws, length can vary (three screws per leg)
Where you attach your legs will depend largely on your piece of wood and personal preference. To install, mark the location of your pilot holes using the flanges. Drill the pilot holes, then put in the screws.
Here are a few more photos.
It sure was a pleasure working with this hunk of a mulberry tree. And I think the original lamp pipe legs accent the rustic wood beautifully. What do you think? I hope this tutorial gives you inspiration and information to make your live edge side table. Thanks again for stopping by!
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