Slab Tables

This woodturner may have been bitten by the flat-boarder bug. That is to say, I actually enjoyed making something flat without the lathe. I had no intention of disrupting a lifelong journey of being a well-rounded turner. But I may have found another interest of which I could offer equal passion. Live edge slab tables.

I bought two 8’ by roughly 15” slabs from the Tree House Hardwoods. One was a straight walnut board with waning along both edges. The other was a crotch maple with some gravely looking deadwood and mediocre color. They were affordable and were just right for testing my skills at slab coffee tables, or benches.

As a woodworker who rarely purchases wood, It's difficult forking over greenbacks for a chunk of trunk. Trees are so abundant it seems counterintuitive to purchase them. As a turner, I find tree chunks all over the place. I use them to make bowls, plates, etc. Of course, I need nothing longer than 20”. And shorter will suffice just the same. When it comes to flat boarding I recognize the benefit of middle men to cut a tree, slice it into lumber, dry it, and store it until I'm ready to buy it.

As a green wood turner, I get what falls my way. (Pun sort of intended.) I can't tell you how many times I hear from a friend of a friend who tells a friend of mine that they are cutting a tree down at their cousin’s neighbor's house and how I might like it potentially as something to make something out of because it is a huge tree. They make a gesture as if hugging a pretend tree to emphasize just how huge this particular tree is and their fingertips can't quite touch each other around this invisible tree they are hugging. Finding wood like this keeps my expenses down and fuels my creativity because my material changes considerably from tree to tree. Although the trees are rarely as big around as their tree hugging gesture suggests, I am grateful to carve ordinary trees into functional objects.

So I purchased these two planks of kiln dried wood. Gorgeous. Dynamite. I recommend The Tree House Hardwoods for purchasing slabs. Tree House Hardwoods has wonderful customer service too. The Tree House Hardwoods is where I shop for lumber in general because at The Tree House Hardwoods their lumber is second to none. (I promise the men at The Tree House Hardwoods on Williston Road in South Burlington, VT had nothing to do with my mentioning of their friendly, knowledgeable services. But if they want to sling a couple boards my way because of it I would accept.) They sell plywood and have custom milling as well. They are well rounded for flat boarders.

The walnut slab was convenient to run across the joiner and through the planer. However the maple crotch was too wide. It had a broad cup at the widest point of the crotch and required some aggressive attention. I grabbed ahold of an electric hand plane, a suggestion I heard from Scott Duffy of Rockledge Farm Woodworks. During a visit to his wonderful woodshop and showroom, I asked him how he flattened his slabs as some of them were too big for the joiner in his shop. He grinned and gestured to his son. ‘Him and a hand plane.’

I strapped the maple slab to a table and started buzzing the high spots with the electric hand plane. It was cathartic to remove layers of wood so fast. Within minutes I had that slab flat enough to fool a fool. Fortunately, James, whose shop I use, reasonably stepped in and suggested we use his CNC router to get an honestly flat surface for this operation. ‘It feels flat to me,’ I said. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Go back and read that sentence you just wrote.’

We anchored it on his 8’ CNC machine and skimmed off the high spots, flipped it over and did the same. The goal for this first project was a 19” tall waterfall coffee table. Nothing too difficult. I marked out the cut lines for the 45 degree cuts and secured the slab to James’ Felder sliding tablesaw. Buzzzzert! 45’s to fool a fool.

For the joinery I used a Festool Domino. (Every professional woodworker just rolled their eyes.) Remember, I'm a woodturner so my joinery doesn’t have the same standard toward traditional methods of execution. Also, I’m impatient. That Domino tool works quickly after marking your lines. I buzzed about seven Domino slots along the slab, squeezed some Titebond II in there, hammered the legs on and clamped the sucker tight.

The following morning I anxiously unclamped the setup and tentatively sat on it and wriggled around. If it's going to go I want it to do so with no one else around. It held strong.

I rounded over the edges with a hand plane. Then cleaned up the disaster with a Festool Rotex orbital sander set on aggressive mode with some 60 grit. I chiseled the glue squeeze out away from the inside corners and sanded both tables to 220 grit. And I'll admit I committed another woodworking heresy when I pushed the chisel into the corner of the table and twisted it like a screwdriver to lift the glue out. Don't worry, the chisel tip didn't break… to my standards.

I sprayed a few coats of polyurethane and that was it. Several years ago I built a shaker hall table and that was a bowl turner’s nightmare. I had to measure accurately on several pieces of wood and layout mortise and tenons. I had to meticulously sharpen a hand chisel to clean the mortises. My instructor, Bob Fletcher, wanted me to make a hand cut dovetail drawer. Yeah right! What are you nuts, I exclaimed. I did however turn the 30” legs to a design inspired by Mathew Burak’s catalog.

All this talk of flat boards is driving me crazy. I need to get back behind the lathe before I forget what round is.


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