Dan has been a homeowner for some 40 years and has nearly always done his own repair and improvement tasks. He is a licensed electrician.
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.
Choosing the Burl
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.
Materials You'll Need
The top was then covered in a liquid plastic casting resin 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.
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
Try a Laser Level
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.
Securing the Base
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
© 2010 Dan Harmon
geoffery hess on August 12, 2017:
hello, I recently just milled a large big leaf maple burl into 2-2.5 in slabs and am wondering where I can find wrought iron coffee table bases?
Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on November 02, 2015:
I found mine in one of the roadside sales in the Redwood Forest. Or you could search a beach or forest, or look for some online - anyone that sells the slabs probably has bases of all shapes and sizes.
B.Packham on November 02, 2015:
where can I come to see the tables and stumps for bases?
I have a table top but no base.
Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on July 19, 2014:
As the top had been cut with a chain saw, it was extremely rough. A belt sander was used, followed by a random orbital with grits up to 180.
Brooke on July 19, 2014:
How did you sand your top? Did you use a belt sander or a palm sander? And how high of a grit did you use? I'm currently finishing a piece and I'm having a hard time with scratching since the grain goes in every direction.
Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on January 17, 2014:
The last I heard it was no longer available at the forest; it had been made illegal to purchase. That, however, was quite a while back and laws may have changed. The piece used in the article cost around $100 in about 1990
Switchdaces@yahoo.com on January 17, 2014:
How much does it typically cost to buy burl wood slab at the redwood national forest?
email@example.com on June 16, 2013:
Have you ever tried to clean the bottom of this table? I have a beautiful redwood table that was handed down to me from my grandmother. Its been in storage for years and the bottom may of never been treated. The top does have a glaze but the bottom has a lot of dust on it. I'm very nervous about cleaning it. Any ideas what I could clean it with? I'm very nervous about ruining it if I get it to damp.
Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on February 02, 2013:
@Just Ask Susan: you missed a chance back then; when we visited we had flown out, so there was no possibility of taking a slab home, but the shop we bought at was familiar with the problem and had no trouble shipping it. It wasn't cheap by any means, but it did the job.
@tlpoague: We have knocked ours over, too, and the grandchildren have done so several times. If you have small children, though, it would certainly be possible to design legs that provide more support. A single piece of driftwood in the center isn't the only method of support.
Tammy from USA on February 01, 2013:
My parents use to have a table like this when I was growing up. I thought it was beautiful. I have always wanted to make one as an addition to the furniture in my home, but haven't found the time yet to do it. They are easy to topple over if a small child or person leans on it. I think we knocked ours over a couple of times before dad put it in a corner out of the way of us youngsters. I never noticed before now the price tag on one of these. Thanks for sharing your tips and photos for making a table. I will be sure to bookmark it for the future.
Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on February 01, 2013:
I was in the redwoods back in the early 80's and it was always my dream to return to purchase a table. At that time there were tons of places to stop at on the highway that sold tables. Unfortunately I was on a motorcycle and had nowhere to carry it :)
I love your burl wood table and the driftwood is beautiful too.
Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on February 01, 2013:
Looks incrediby beautiful and I'd very much like to have one, or have someone make me one. My brother is a cabinet maker and a seriously good carpenter; might ask him. I'd love one in redwood but we don't have that in England where he lives. He'll have to come up with another idea.
Sharing and voting. Thanks
Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on October 01, 2012:
Janis, you're right. I love wood in the home and far prefer it to plastic or metal. It has a presence that other materials can't match.
Natasha: Yes, these tables carry an impressive price tag. Large burl pieces are relatively rare and it is an art to use them properly. You can't shove such a piece into a machine and expect fine furniture out of it. As far as damaging it, well, it was so large that even had I done so, the damaged part could have been cut out and till have a beautiful table left. Not too much risk there.
Natasha from Hawaii on September 30, 2012:
I love the driftwood base! It is a very impressive piece of driftwood. Also, it is amazing how much burl wood tables sell for. I really like making things, but my woodworking skills aren't really that fantastic. I've managed a few bookshelves and and end table from packing crate wood, but I would be afraid to damage such a beautiful piece of burl wood.
Janis Goad on September 30, 2012:
Such a beautiful piece of furniture. The living wood keeps its energy for centuries after the tree dies, and brings a living presence to the room.
Dan Harmon (author) from Boise, Idaho on November 26, 2010:
Yes, getting it slabbed is probably not something a homeowner would want to tackle. A huge bandsaw or chainsaw is not something most folks have in their basement.
They sure make beautiful tables, though. I would much rather have a coffee table than a dozen clocks or something. Lots of design possibilities for "legs" or support; it just takes imagination. Take a look on eBay perhaps for other ideas - there were some there when I looked some time ago. Selling for $2500!
Bruce Stewart on November 25, 2010:
A goergous table. I have a giant rock maple burl that I have been thinking of turning into a coffee table, but was not sure on a design. I guess I should look into getting it slabbed.