Every now and then, a piece of wood speaks to a woodworker. It tells the woodworker how it needs to be used – what it wants to be. Early last month, I spied this worm-eaten slab in Woodcraft, and it said “I want to be your coffee table.” I walked by the slab several times. I wasn’t looking for a piece of wood or a new project, I already had two projects going in the shop. Still, this piece kept calling to me, and I did need a coffee table in my office. After examining the slab several times, I took it to the counter. The salesman looked at it and said “coffee table?” Exactly!
Somehow, this hunk of wood kept speaking to me. My initial plan was to turn three or four legs and call it a table. As I studied the slab, I realized that it wanted to stand alone. This slab wanted to be the only piece of wood in the project. I decided that instead of wooden legs, I would make a metal base. The shape of the slab suggested three legs, and I have seen many tables that sit on three steel legs connected by a T-shaped base – that would have been easy to make. Easy to make, but it didn’t seem that it would complement the slab. The tables that I have seen that use simple steel bases to support a highly figured slab, all seem to be going for a gallery look, as if the bases are just there to display the piece of wood. This slab wanted to live in my office, not decorate it. This slab wanted to be my coffee table.
I decided to make a base that would mirror the shape of the slab and suggest tree limbs. I would still use steel but I would bend it a bit before welding it together. Unfortunately, I know a lot more about woodworking than I do about working with metal. I have some basic tools for working with metal, but nothing fancy. For example, I have a bending jig, but it’s made for round tubing. When you bend square tubing, one side has to collapse in order for the tube to remain “square” through the bend. Amazingly, I found a blog post that described how to adapt my tubing bender to produce adequate bends in square tubing.
The slab is well suited to my office, which has a chair, an end table and a couch arranged in an “L” layout. The slab has two useful edges, a narrow end and an edge that is more decorative than functional. Unfortunately, in that orientation the first thing people entering my office would see is the collapsed side of the longest bend of the steel base, something I thought was ugly. Now it was back to the Internet for a lesson on body soldering. Several members of my family argued in favor of leaving the collapsed section as it was. The dents were evidence of my work, they were natural and they were necessary. All true, but they also showed that I didn’t know much about bending square tubing; we weren’t talking about graceful indentations. Body work complete, it was time to finish the slab.
By this point, in-progress pictures had been shared on Facebook and Flickr and comments, questions and suggestions were pouring in. The majority of opinions seemed to favor filling the slab with a clear substance that would yield a uniform, hard and waterproof surface. Others suggested mating the slab with a glass top. The slab did not want to be a bug trapped in amber, and the slab wasn’t flat and didn’t want to be sanded flat. The slab wanted to be my coffee table.
This time, my family agreed: “let the wood be wood.” I picked and brushed and sanded the top until it was smooth and until every bit of junk that was stuck in a worm hole had been removed. The tools and techniques made me feel more like a dentist than a woodworker, but the result was worth the effort. The table isn’t flat, it is likely to suffer damage as some of the holes are ringed by very thin edges and it surely isn’t waterproof. I don’t think it cares. I finished the slab with oil, to highlight the grain, fungus stains and its rich 3-dimensional character; and to make it easy to repair future damage.
I think I managed to meet the expectations of the slab. It’s mated to an imperfect base, but the beauty of the wood coupled with the understated flat black finish on the steel help to conceal the defects. The shape of the base seems to work. I don’t know if it suggests tree limbs, but it looks like it belongs with that piece of wood. Later this week, after the oil is completely dry, I’ll cart this into work and this slab can start its new life as my coffee table.