How beautiful are live edge slabs?
I’ve often wondered what’s so appealing about live edge material. I guess there’s a certain allure to working with not only a material that’s naturally grown (as is the case with all wood), but also a material that still has obvious signs of its natural, imperfect growth remaining.
Generally speaking, live edge material is the same as any other board, except it has at least one, usually two, edges that are uncut, angled and wavy, in the way they originally grew. Maybe the assumption is that these boards are more rustic and natural than lumber with straight milled edges.
Whatever the allure, live edge material has become incredibly popular over the past decade or so. Epoxy has made live edge material even more popular, with “river tables” being all the rage for a number of years now. Blue epoxy “flowing” between two live edge slabs is certainly a powerful look, and one that’s now everywhere in the woodworking world. There are colours other than blue epoxy, but blue seems to be the favourite. Log into Instagram or Facebook and, if you’re a woodworker, you’ll quickly see who’s completed their latest epoxy tabletop or charcuterie board. Or maybe it’s a waterfall table, with the grain of the table running across the top, past a mitred joint and down the side towards the floor. Either way, live edge lumber is very likely involved.
Not a fan
When I saw my very first epoxy river table I was impressed. The bright colours that can be mixed into epoxy makes for a very bold look next to just about any wood species. After seeing a few of these tables, I became less impressed. They’re fine if that’s the look you like, but they’re just not for me. Maybe it’s the lack of true design in these pieces that makes them less appealing to me. The tree has done all the design work by shaping the edge of the lumber and providing bold colour and grain. Design is a secondary focus of most of the live edge pieces of furniture I’ve ever seen.
To be clear, however, if a client really wanted me to build a live edge piece for them, I likely would. But I wouldn’t spend my time and energy making a speculative piece out of live edge material.
My first live edge project
The first time I ever worked with what could be considered live edge material was about 15 years ago. While most live edge material is flat sawn, this was an end grain cross section of an old oak tree that came off a client’s family property. They had been holding onto the large chunk of wood for about 30 years before getting in touch with me to see if I could turn it into a coffee tabletop. It was about 3-1/2″ thick and around 40″ in diameter. And it was heavy.
All I needed to do was set up a simple router sled to flatten both of the surfaces, then apply a finish to the top. The main thing I remember about working with that top was the fact that slivers were everywhere. It’s hard to explain, but because I was machining the end grain of the wood the shavings were more like splinters. Each rotation of the router bit produced a pair of wood slivers that seemed to land in my work boots and quickly end up embedded in my feet or ankles. At any rate, the coffee tabletop got flattened, finished and delivered, and I somehow managed to avoid not injuring my back while moving that huge hardwood disk around the shop and into the car for delivery.
My second live edge job
A few weeks ago clients asked me to make them a live edge bar top for their kitchen. This is the same kitchen I’ve been working on over the past few months. This was essentially the final piece of the puzzle. They wanted a cherry live edge slab to contrast with the Baltic birch kitchen I made for them. I like cherry, so I was happy to make it.
A few calls to local retailers gave me no leads. Apparently, many retailers stopped carrying live edge material during the pandemic, as customers need to actually see these slabs before they buy them, and retailer doors were often closed during that time. Nobody was buying live edge slabs sight unseen. I made a few calls to some of my woodworking friends, which led me to a couple of one-man lumber operations. One guy had some pieces I figured might work, so I headed out later that day. After checking over his supply in an old barn, I chose one to be cut in half so I could bring it home in my vehicle.
I took it to the clients’ home and put it in place so we could chat about an approach. The slab was too wide for the bar top, so I trimmed a few inches off one edge, removing one of the natural edges. Next, I set up a quick and dirty levelling jig and got to work machining the upper face of the slab flat. When done, I flipped the slab over, adjusted the bit height and levelled the underside of the slab. This was easy. Why didn’t I work with live edge before this?!
A bit more machining to ensure the slab could be properly secured in place and then it was time to apply a durable finish that would give the clients a long, service-free life for their bar top. After three coats of an oil / varnish mixture, I let the finish cure for a week before buffing it out. As I brought the slab to the clients’ house I was really looking forward to seeing how it would turn out. Not surprisingly, it looked great and the clients loved it. Maybe this live edge thing isn’t that bad after all.
I can see the allure in creating a large tabletop or surface that people look at and say, “Oh wow, the grain in that top is so beautiful!” Short of levelling it, there’s also not a large amount of machining to be done. And let’s be honest, an oil-based finish on a large slab of wood is always going to be a home run.
As well as this project turned out, I’m not about to start marketing myself as a live edge material specialist. If more of these jobs land in my lap, I’ll take them on, but I’m not searching them out. I still prefer a different approach to tabletops. I’ll take a quarter sawn or rift sawn top over a live edge slab any day, even if those two options include many glue lines. The simplicity of what can be achieved with subtle wood grain and colour excites me more than the busy and overpowering look of a live edge slab.
General Details – Here, I’m partially done levelling the first face of the live edge slab. A simple setup works well, but there are a few details that need to be accounted for.
The rough live edge slab, just shortly after it was cut from a much longer plank.
Once the slab was trimmed closer to its finished size, I set up a simple levelling sled on my table saw to give me a solid foundation to work from. Two larger lengths of Douglas fir were used on either side and a simple Baltic birch base made up the rest of the setup. Here, I’m testing out the depth of cut. I was aiming to flush the entire surface of the slab, but not remove too much material. A few quick passes, followed by some bit height adjustments, and I was good to go.
Not an Even Thickness
As you can see, at this end of the slab I was removing close to 1/4" of material. At the other end, only about 1/16" of material was being removed. All I really needed was for the whole face of this slab to be machined smooth, so I was pleased with this setup.
The upper surface was levelled and the grain and colour of this black cherry live edge slab was looking promising.
Now that both of the faces of this live edge slab have been levelled, the next step was obvious; clean up this mess.
The clients are very pleased with this black cherry live edge slab as their new kitchen bar, and that’s what it’s all about.
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
At this rate you’ll be making a river table by next week!
Nice simple, effective setup. What size and style of bit did you use in the router?
The timing of your article is perfect. I’m in the process of leveling some spalted maple “cookies” and have used the router technique that you have mentioned. I plan on finishing them as side tables. They will need to be sealed before applying a finish. Any recommendations towards this would be appreciated. I’d like to see your finished piece.
We create custom live edge pieces up to 60 inches wide. To drastically reduce the time/cost of jointing slabs that have dried to 8/10% H2O, we use a special jointer that is capbale of jointing slabs, beams, etc. up to 60 inches wide (and up to 32 feet long). It’s a little like your router sled, but utilizes a 10″ diameter rotary planer head. We can joint a 60 inch wide slab, 8 feet long in about 20 minutes. Then we flip it over and thickness plane on the same equipment in another 20 minutes.
Just noticed your comment now. Sounds like an interesting setup you have there. If you wouldn’t mind sending me a few images of the setup I’d love to be able to share them with our readers in an upcoming weekly column. I’m at rbrown (at) canadianwoodworking.com. Thanks!