Introduction: Custom Live Edge Walnut Slab Dining Set With LEDs, Glass Inlay, and Custom Steel Legs
First Prize in the
Furniture Contest 2017
This table was a blast to build. My client had a specific (and challenging) vision in mind, and the budget to back it up. Her asks included:
-Live edges on both sides comprised of two separate Walnut slabs
-Lots of figure and contrast
-Cavities in the middle to hold her tumbled agate collection
-Cavities must be lit with LEDs to illuminate the agates
-Removable glass inlays covering cavities.
-Dimensions of 40" wide x 82" long
-Custom steel legs (blackened)
-One matching bench
-Completion within 1 month
I did my best to document each step of the process, but I was on a fairly tight deadline and missed the opportunity to photograph some of the steps along the way. Please forgive the missing photos; I will try to describe those steps as best I can...
Step 1: Sourcing the Slabs
I would argue that this is the most important step, and can also be one of the more time consuming parts. A significant amount of time, energy, and gas was spent visiting different mills and wood suppliers searching for the perfect slabs. This was a tricky feat, considering the specific width requirement meant that I had to find two live edge slabs at the right widths to combine to create the desired 40". They also had to have shapes that were conducive to creating the desired voids for the clients agate collection. The slabs also had to have a high degree of figure and character. As with most any slab search, other high priority requirements are; kiln dried or properly air dried for at least a couple years, nice and flat without too much twist/cupping/wane (all of which would require removal of thickness to properly fix), and of course a good price point.
My search usually begins with a scan of Craigslist under the "materials" section. Often times local hobby millwrights or other woodworkers with excess wood will post their slabs on there for better than retail pricing. Many retailers will even post their current stock on craigslist to draw in more people. I found a few decent options on Craigslist, but nothing that checked all of the boxes well enough for this projects. From there, I checked with some local tree workers who mill up the trees that they fall. These guys will often have their own small mills and sell slabs at a good price because they can get the logs for free or cheap, and dont necessarily rely on selling the wood at market value. Still I didnt find the right slabs, so I next moved on to retail/wholesale lumber suppliers and checked their stock. Obviously expanding my search to these suppliers yielded the most options, but at a premium price.
I finally found the right slabs at a local hardware store! Well, not exactly. It turns out that this particular hardware store is owned by a fellow that also has his own mill and warehouse full of live edge slabs from logs that were sourced locally. He happened to have several stacks of Claro Walnut to choose from. Within these stacks I found the perfect slabs! They were the perfect widths, they were sequenced (bookmatched), they had been air dried in a proper environment for 3 years, they were nice and flat, and they were a relatively good price. They came with an added bonus of being sent through their wide planer, meaning I didnt have to sand through rough sawn surfaces; I do not own a 24" wide planer....
Throughout this whole search, I was sending pictures to my client to get their input. We both agreed that these were the right slabs, so I finally got to happily move forward with the project!
Step 2: Designing and Rendering for Client Approval
Nearly every project I build will first get thoroughly designed in CAD before I ever touch a tool. This can be a little more challenging with live edge slabs, since the organic shape is difficult to accurately represent in CAD. The way I deal with this challenge is by getting on a tall ladder and taking a straight down photo of the entire slab, and then I import at that photo into my CAD program and trace it. I include a tape measure in the photo to help me scale the traced shape accurately.
After building my scaled CAD model(s), I overlay the original photos on top of the model to help the client visualize what I am going for. Once the client and I decided on one design, I further engineer the specifics of how different components will join and interface.
For this particular project, I pulled various vectors off of the CAD model for a variety of purposes. I pulled the shape of the center cavities and exported them to a DXF file which I then sent to a glass company to water jet the shapes for me. I also used this same file to build jigs for routing the recess's as well as for cutting the polycarbonate that would fit on the bottom side of the table. The jigs and polycarbonate were cut on my DIY CNC router. I also CNC cut jigs to hold the steel table leg parts together at the correct positions for welding. I even laser cut profiles of the different steel parts to assist in laying out the correct angles and lengths for cutting on the metal chop saw. Having a solid CAD model to start with made all of these steps either possible, or at least much much easier.
Step 3: Prepping the Boards (filling Cracks, Stabilizing Knots, Sanding Smooth)
I like to fill all knots, checks, voids, etc with black tinted epoxy in most situations, especially when working with Walnut. I feel that black looks the most natural in most situations, and can look quite dramatic as well. Since these slabs had some relatively deep checks here and there, I used a slow set epoxy; this allows the epoxy plenty of time to seep deep into the cracks which helps to truly stabilize instead of just creating the illusion of being filled. The downside to this method is that you almost always have to revisit and fill a second, or even third time. Sometimes I use a quicker set epoxy for subsequent filling. I filled all voids on both sides of the slabs, to ensure that the boards would stay as flat and stable as possible. Filling until the epoxy rises well above the surface helps ensure that there will be no bubbles when it is sanded down (bubbles rise to the very top of the puddle).
After all voids were filled above the surface of the wood, I went back and sanded it all flat again with 60 grit.
Step 4: Shaping the Slabs for Joining
Unfortunately this is one of the steps that I didnt get many pictures of.. Basically I laid one board on top of the other in the proper position, and scribed where I needed to remove material. I then used a combination of the Jigsaw, angle grinder(with carving disk and flap wheel), and hand carving tools to carve wherever necessary. There was a lot of fine tuning and during this step. I left about a 3/16" gap between the slabs throughout. I did this because I thought it would look dramatic, and because perfectly/seamlessly joining live edges together is pretty impractical. The gaps will be maintained by bowtie inlays in the next step. Next I squared up the ends by using my tracksaw.
During this step, I also debarked and cleaned up the live edges on the table slabs as well as the bench slab with a drawknife. I then used an angle grinder equipt with a flap wheel to smooth them out a bit more.
For the bench, I cut off one of the live edges using the tracksaw. The client and I agreed that the bench should have one straight edge, especially given the shape of the board we were working with.
Step 5: Joining the Slabs With Dowels and Bowtie Inlays
I used a doweling jig to join the center portion of the table together. The 2 dowels are primarily intended to keep that section of the two slabs in plane (flat to each other). The bowtie inlays and the table legs will have most of the holding power when it comes to keeping the two slabs secured together. Unlike most of the other bowtie inlays Ive seen, these bowties are nearly as thick as the slabs themselves.
For the bowties, I laminated a walnut strip between two thicker strips of mahogany, and CNC routed the shapes. I also CNC routed a template to use with my palm router to create the pockets in the slabs.
After adjusting the gaps between the slabs to exactly where I wanted them, I clamped the slabs to the table to hold the positioning. Then I used my template and router (with guides) to mill out the pockets. I naturally had to chisel out the corners of the pockets where the round bit left a radius. I could have made the actual bowties include the radius, but I like the look of the sharp corners better.
Once the pockets were clean, I carefully test fit the bowties (ensuring that I didnt get them stuck!) and proceeded to glue them in. I made the bowties a little thicker than the pockets, and sanded them down flush.
Once this step was finished, I sanded all surfaces from 60 grit to 180 grit. I do my final sand at 220 grit just before finishing.
Step 6: Inlaying the Glass, Polycarbonate, and LEDs
I utilized my CAD model to build templates for the glass and polycarb inlays. Carpet tape was perfect for temporarily securing the templates to the surface of the table without causing any damage. I then used my palm router with template guides again to create the recess's on both sides of the slabs. I ended up having to do a little fine tuning with a my rabbet plane and chisels to make the glass sit perfectly flat without having a slight rock from side to side. I used small suction cups to pull the glass in and out over and over again. I supplied these same suction cups to the client for her use as well with the final product.
The polycarbonate inlays were easily cut with my CNC router and an O-flute endmill. At this point I had to figure out the best method to secure the plastic inlays to the bottom of the table. I wanted to make it easy to remove the plastic down the road in case they ever needed to be replaced due to scratches or any other reason. I decided custom walnut toggles would be a good method to achieve this, so I laser cut them from some thin stock I had lying around.
Next I had to deal with the LED's before placing in the plastic. I decided to have the LED's edgelight the plastic for a more subtle effect, which would also obscure the actual nodes from being seen. I had bought some thin LED strip lights with adhesive back, which were easy to stick to the perimeter edge of the recess that I had previously routed into the bottom of the slabs. I had to wire the two separate circuits together in a Y formation, which then plugged into a remote dimmer module, which then hit another Y that split one end into a rechargeable battery, and other end into a connector for a 12v wall wart style power supply. This allows the LED's to run off of battery, or to be plugged in to the wall. The idea is that they can plug the table in to charge when not in use, and unplug when they don't want the wire to be in the way. I secured the wiring and battery to the bottom of the table top using zip ties and anchors. I had thought about inlaying the battery and wiring, but ultimately decided it was best not to, since those components will someday need to be removed or replaced when they wear out. After all, this is to be a heirloom quality table that should outlast me, the client, and the LED's. That being said, the LED's will last for a very long time, and can be replaced with similar products if desired.
After test fitting the plastic, and testing the lights, I set the plastic to the side. The toggles and plastic would not be affixed until after finishing.
Step 7: Finishing With OSMO PolyX
The client wanted a natural, durable, but not plastic/film style finish, so I decided to use OSMO PolyX. This product is actually meant for wood flooring, but also works great for furniture. It s very low VOC and high in solids as it is primarily comprised of wax and natural oils. It is also quite easy to apply, requiring only 2 coats to create an extremely durable and low maintenance finish.
I dont have any pictures of the application process, since I was wearing rubber gloves covered in finish for most of it. Before application, I did one final sand of all surfaces and edges with 220 grit.
To apply the OSMO, I used a masking/taping knife to spread the finish around consistently. This is essentnially a scraper, which allowed me to push the puddle of finish around, forcing it into the grain and fully wetting down the sufaces. Edges had to be applied with a rag. After saturating the surface, I wiped it down heavily with lint free rags. It is important to really work the finish in and wipe off the excess. I coated both sides and all edges of the table top and bench before letting them dry for a day or two, and then reapplied. Only two coats are necessary, and in fact any more than that will create an undesirable waxy film on the surface.
After all the wooden parts were finished, I placed the polycarbonate in their respective pockets and attached them with the toggles.
Step 8: Building and Attaching the Legs
The legs were constructed out of 1.5" x 3" rectangular tubing and 1.5"x1.5" angle iron. To make this process easier, I laser cut templates to cut out the necessary components, and also built a jigs to hold these parts together at the proper registration. Once upon a time, I was a great welder, but after years of little practice I still have functional skills, but cant create very decorative welds. To alleviate this, I used an angle grinder to grind down all the welds to create a consistent looking surface.
After finishing all the welds, I went over all surfaces with the angle grinder and a flap wheel to make all the surfaces match in texture and sheen. I made sure to create elongated holes in the angle iron attachment rails to ensure that the wood slabs can expand and contract without issue. I also capped the bottoms of the legs, so that I could drill and tap holes for leveling feet.
The client wanted the legs to be black, so we went back and forth a little on how we wanted to achieve this. We landed on using a chemical blackening agent instead of paint, since it would be more durable and would hide imperfections better. I used a product called "presto black". The application involved spray saturating all surfaces with the chemical and then neutralizing it with a water/baking soda mixture to stop the reaction before it started to over cook and oxidize (rust). After neutralizing it, I force dried the metal with an air compressor, and coated all surfaces with a matte polyurethane to ensure that it doesn't rust down the road.
To attach the table legs, I used "nut-certs" and bolts, which allow the legs to be removed and installed over and over without wearing out the holes. On the bench, I used large wood screws, since the bench is small enough to move around without having to remove the legs.
Step 9: Delivering and Installing!
My client lives about 3 hours away from me, so it was important to package the table up very carefully for the trip. I disassembled the legs from the bench and the table and wrapped all components individually and sealed them in large polybags. It is important to wrap and pack, items in sequence, that way when you go to unpack everything, you do it in the reverse order and the install goes much smoother. For example, when I got to the client's house, the first thing that came off the truck was the table top, which was placed on their floor upside down. The next items that were readily available were the legs, which I fastened to to the table. Next was the bench, then the bench legs, etc... This may seem like common sense, but it is easy to forget in the frenzy of packing and unpacking a project. I dont have any pictures of this process, but Im sure its easy enough to imagine.
The client loved the dining set, and has since decorated it by placing her agates in the lit cavities, chosen a seasonal centerpiece, and placed her specially chosen chairs around it as you'll see in the pictures. The set really helps to activate the already very nice space. I am happy to have this piece go to a great home where it will enjoyed and taken care of!
Thanks for reading!
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