This project started with three ideas.
1. I’m moving to Portland.
2. In Portland, they’ve got wood.
3. In Portland, I’ll need a desk.
So, without really thinking anything through, I found Urban Hardwood Recovery online and emailed Tyler, the owner. After he gave me an idea of hardwood pricing & convinced me that making a desk wasn’t crazy (even for somebody who has no woodworking skills), I decided to go to his warehouse in Aurora, OR.
In Aurora, I found Toby J’s Wood Art. And at Toby’s, I found a huge selection of wood. After looking over the wood & assessing my budget, I decided that I could afford to build my own live edge hardwood desk.
So, less than 24 hours after touching down in Portland, I bought a 6′ slab of live-edge sweet gum wood. And crammed it into the back of my cheap rental car — only to discover that the fit was so tight that I couldn’t drive the car anymore (the perils of being too tall).
So, if you buy an unfinished 6′ slab of wood, what do you do with it? Basically, there are three preparatory steps:
1. Plane the wood so that the surface is completely flat.
2. Sand the wood to smooth the edges/surface.
3. Seal the wood so that moisture doesn’t damage it.
Preparing and finishing the wood is a little more complicated than this (what do you do with the bark? how do you plane a giant piece of wood?), and fortunately Toby gave me a set of simple directions to follow.
First, planing the wood was beyond my abilities — to do it right, you need some serious equipment. Toby, after wisely assessing my abilities, sent me to a place – Creative Woodworking - that would plane wood on demand and bill in half-hour increments. (If there’s no Creative Woodworking in your area…you can buy planing equipment, but I’m not sure how well it will work.)
Second, since I don’t own many power tools, Toby offered to let me bring the wood back to his shop. There, he’d help me handle the bark & I could use his palm sander to smooth out the wood’s surfaces. So, this time I rented a UHaul pickup to drive my slab from Portland back to Aurora. At this point, the wood was already starting to look great.
In Aurora, Toby and I unloaded the slab. On my particular slab, the bark was attached well — so instead of knocking it all the way off, Toby quickly used a tool – an angle grinder – to shave down the roughest parts of the bark.
But – while at Toby’s, I also picked up 4 table legs that a gentleman named Conrad welded to my exact specifications. Since I’m tall, I’d asked him to make them 30″ tall insted of the normal 27″ height. And, I’d asked for black, matte L-shaped legs. When he made them, he welded the legs to a 6″ square plate (to attach to the wood) and also finished the triangle in the L at the bottom of each leg with a clean, smooth edge.
At this point, the wood needed to be sealed and the legs needed to be attached — things I could do on my own. But not in my new not-yet-unpacked apartment. So, I took the wood into my office…and decided to work on it there after-hours.
The finishing process is pretty simple. Apply a thin coat of clear polyurethane, wait. Lightly sand with fine-grain sandpaper after the coat is dry. Wipe the surface down, and add another coat. Top and bottom should be sealed to prevent any warping. 3-4 coats are necessary to adequately protect the wood from coffee cups etc. A professional would spray the coat on, but the finish can be applied carefully by hand. I used a brush; a mini-roller might produce a more even finish. The biggest challenge is avoiding deep brush strokes and drips that develop from over-applying the polyurethane.
After the desktop dried, I brought in my only power tool (a cordless drill!) and attached the legs. Voila!
All told, the finishing process took me about 4 days. The whole desk took 17 days — including lag time caused by my work schedule.
If you’re interested in replicating this project, the cost will vary some, depending mostly on the wood and leg choices. Roughly:
Wood Slab: $300-1000
Metal Legs: $150-300
Compared to the prices that you see for live-edge furniture in design stores? The DIY price is a pittance. And the final product speaks for itself. Not perfect, but still beautiful. And a very satisfying project.
Had I preferred, Toby offered to coordinate the whole process and organize shipping anywhere in the continental US. The price would be a little higher, but still much less than retail. And, given the professional quality of the work by all involved (except me!), I’m confident that the desk would have been perfect. But this way, I made my own desk.