Learn this homesteader's secrets for building a beautiful hardwood tree table from scratch.
It you've ever tried to fabricate one of those tables made from a massive slab of log you know there's more than meets the eye to the project. That is: A thick and imposing slice of wood cut diagonally from most tree trunks may look as solid as granite the day it's buzzed out . . . but there's almost a 100% chance that it'll warp, crack — even "explode" — as its fibers dry and shrink.
Ah, but there's a very simple "trade secret" known to the folks — such as Rey Sheldon of Marlboro, Vermont — who make this kind of furniture for a living. A secret guaranteed to keep those beauteous, burly cross-sections of timber from cracking after you've worked with them.
The secret? Cut your slabs only from old hardwood logs that have lain out in the woods so long that mushrooms have started to grow on them. No one really quite knows why, but mushrooms growing on a dead and downed tree trunk seems to be a near-infallible indication that the log has already naturally cured wall past the warping and cracking stage.
Another point: Once a tree has been down long enough for ground fungi to grow on it, the splintered end of its trunk will probably have rotted so much that you can poke a finger right through that part of the wood. Don't lot the fact discourage you. Chances are good that this is only another sign that the main body of the log is just starting to really cure well. Use a crosscut or chain saw to slice out the lengthwise slab or oval that you want. If the wood is solid — not rotted or punky — all the way through where you make your cut, it doesn't really matter what the log looks like on its end.
Take your slab of wood home and — just to make sure — let it age in a dry place at room temperature for an additional two months. If it hasn't cracked by that time, it probably ain't ever gonna. That's your signal to get down to work.
Pry the bark off the slice of timber and dig out whatever rot may have started around its edges. It there are any minor checks or small breaks in the wood's surface that won't show on the finished piece of furniture, you can fill them with epoxy that has been tinted with brown shoe polish or some other coloring. It the checks will show, save some of the finest sanding dust from the project, strain and sift it, and then mix the dust with clear Krylon. Apply this filler in thin layers and let it dry for a full day between coats.
Test the filled breaks with a fingernail and, when they're hard enough, begin working the surfaces of your slab of hardwood with a sander. (Start with an old disk, beft, or pad of rather coarse paper and — as they wear out and clog up — work your way down to a very fine grade of sandpaper.)
Seal the sanded wood with any good commercial wood sealer. If it raises the grain, sand the wood again with a fine paper and apply another coat of the sealer. Continue this alternating operation until your tabletop is "as slick as a duck's beef" . . . then wax its surface with a true paste wax. Let the wood soak up the paste for a few days, then wax it again. The glossy-smooth finish should now be permanent.
Slab tables and stools look best when their legs are put on at splayed out" angles . . . and the bigger the table, the more those legs should splay. Experiment a little. Try different logs and different angles before you make a final decision. Although you'll probably wind up slanting the legs about four to five degrees . . . you'll never know exactly what suits you best until you try a variety of ideas.
Most lumberyards and a good many hardware stores stock ready-made birch, maple, and cherry logs for just this kind of project. Or you can carve, whittle, or turn your own logs on a lathe if you prefer . . . depending on the tools and hardwood you have at your disposal.
Try legs 17 inches long for a cocktail table and 22-inchers for an end table. The best way to mount 'am is by simply drilling holes into the underside of the slab top that the upper ends of the supports will just fit into snugly . . . and then hammer 'em in, That way there's no messy glue or screws that can get lost to tool with and the legs can be removed for moving and storage.
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