Build Your Own Unique Burl Wood Coffee Table
Why a Burl Wood Coffee Table?
Burl wood is a tree growth that has grown in a twisted, deformed manner and has some of the most beautiful wood grain to be found anywhere. Most commonly used in the production of such things as jewelry boxes, knife handles, and other small items, this wood can also be used to make some of the most beautiful furniture available.
Several years ago, I visited the Redwood National Forest in California and purchased a large slab of Redwood burl, along with a piece of odd-shaped driftwood. I had it shipped home and, with a little work, turned it into arguably the most valuable, gorgeous, and unique wooden coffee table I have ever seen. (A similar table is being sold for $2150 on eBay as I write this, although with a metal stand.) It has been well worth the work and cost and makes a great addition to our living room.
Making the Burl Top For the Coffee Table
While I made my coffee table from redwood burl, other common woods include maple burl and walnut burl and with a little searching still more are available.
The burl was a simple slab of rough cut wood and needed considerable finishing. The piece I had was approximately 3 feet wide, 4 ½ feet long and 2" thick, which makes a nice size coffee table, especially against a corner type of couch. Both top and bottom of the burl wood needed sanding, with extra care given to the top. The 2" thick sides were burned heavily with a small torch to emphasize the grain and left blackened with raised wood grain from the burning. In addition, there was one large, curved area of the top that was sunken in, with no wood growing there (common in burl wood - it does not grow straight or even) and this area was also burned and blackened.
The top was then covered in a by first taping the edges off with the tape left sticking straight up all around the wood. A thickness of about 1/8" of resin was thus achieved. Edges were brushed lightly with a wire brush to clean off the excess char, and a light coat of satin polyurethane applied with a paintbrush, leaving them dull and black in contrast to the high gloss surface. The depression in the center was simply filled with the resin (I felt that an uneven surface would surely promote spilling of drinks and such) to the same level as the rest of the top. Make sure that the top is sitting level during this procedure as the resin is liquid and will be thicker on any side that is downhill from the rest of the wood. liquid plastic casting resin
A note on the resin: Many are not clear, and only a crystal clear resin will produce good results. I strongly suggest mixing a small amount of resin as a test before applying it to the burl wood as a check on clarity as well as handling.
Making the Base for the Coffee Table
With the top finished and set aside it was time to start work on the base. I used a piece of natural driftwood that had grown gnarled and twisted as a contrast to the coffee table top and have been pleased with the results.
The driftwood was cut as straight as possible on the bottom, thicker side with a chainsaw and checked for level when sitting on the base. A belt sander worked well for the final touch up here, and it was worked level a little at a time.
The driftwood was set upright and cut off as level as possible about 1" above the desired height of 18" (this would give a table height of 20" with the 2" top added) and a piece of scrap plywood laid on top where the burl wood would eventually go. A chainsaw was again used for the large pieces and a sawzall for smaller branches. Any unevenness, especially in larger branches of the driftwood, must be corrected or the burl wood won't sit straight, at this point I still had a little over 1" to play with in additional cutting. Like chair legs, you can cut some off, but you can't put it back, so all my work making the top level was done just a little at a time, checking often with the scrap plywood to make sure it was even and level.
With the top and bottom both level small branches and slivers were cut or picked off, and the driftwood was given a light sandblasting using low pressure. A good spraying with a low gloss polyurethane spray as protection completed the finish of the base. It was time to assemble the coffee table.
Burl Wood Coffee Table
A recent addition to many homeowners tool kit that would make leveling of such an irregular base much simpler; a laser level. These have become quite popular and are not expensive; now might be the time to investigate purchasing one.
With a laser level the bottom of the driftwood could have been cut level and straight, then set upright on the floor. Many levels come with a small tripod, or it could be set on any convenient support to provide a level line across all of the branches of the driftwood; mark those lines with a pencil and cut just above them.
This would provide a pretty accurate top surface for the burl to sit on, with only minor sanding necessary and would be much easier than the extensive trial and error that was actually used in the project.
Assembling the Unique Coffee Table
The next problem was just how to attach the burl wood table top to the driftwood bottom. Screws going through the top were unacceptable, and I felt it doubtful that simple glue would be an adequate solution.
The answer was to cut a piece of ¾" plywood in the general shape of the burl wood but several inches smaller all the way around. The plywood can then be screwed down onto the driftwood and the burl wood placed on top. By marking the location of the wooden coffee table top, the entire table may then be turned upside down, centered once more on the marks made on the burl wood and screwed through the plywood and into the burl wood. This procedure has served well to hold the top firmly in place for several years.
One item to be careful of, with a small base such as my driftwood the coffee table is not extremely steady. A child sitting on the edge will easily tip it over, and while it doesn't have far to fall it is heavy. A base can be made of anything from copper table legs to a wooden framework, and if the coffee table is to be used to support heavy items, it might be best to design some other kind of base. The rough gray driftwood used does indeed complement the top beautifully, but it isn't worth hurting a small child.
As an additional suggestion, you might fasten a ring of rope lighting under the surface, giving a soft glow to the room without harsh lights. Perfect for watching TV perhaps, or a romantic evening. An objection here is that the cord would have to cross the floor in most cases. If the coffee table is not to be set very near a wall or situated in some manner that the cord would not be stepped on this is probably not a good idea, but if your table location makes that possible, it would make a great addition.
There are many, many projects that can be considered, from various home improvement jobs to making gift items for loved ones or fine furniture such as this. Don't be afraid to give it a go: while this project needed a few of the more uncommon tools, many do not, and most homeowners already have the toolset they need for work around the home. Or perhaps it makes a great excuse to buy that special tool you've been wanting!
Attaching the Base to the Coffee Table Top
Questions & Answers
© 2010 Dan Harmon