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Driftwood Porch Table

Listing #4129   Listed on: 05/06/2013


Contact Name:   Mike Ide
This project began with a 9 ft long by 12” wide by 6 ½” thick chunk of wood which washed upon the shore of a previous client who resides in Hingham Harbor. He was enamored with the piece and asked me to create a deck coffee table for him out of this beam. He described it as being driftwood which I
associate with a very weathered light wood. Apart from its crudeness it also included rusted iron nails or pegs (1/2” diameter) pounded through the log which stuck out on either side.
It clearly was not driftwood in the traditional sense, it in fact was more likely an old piece of dock broken
away from one of the Boston Harbor islands decrepit piers and very heavy! He suggested I bring it over to my shop (where it sat for a month in winter) and let me think about it! I made no commitment and offered no estimate.
This is a good client, I could not fail him. Based on the orientation of the nails which with a sledge hammer would not be pounded out, it was not possible to slice the beam into 2” or so slabs which could have been joined to make a table top. Instead, the only option was to saw right across the middle of the
beam, avoiding the nails and ending up with two beams each about 6 ½” x 6”. Even then, I did not have the tools to do this, the beam was way too heavy to lift alone and way too heavy for my band saw. I called my friend Huck Handy who builds timber frame barns who had a 16” portable skill saw.

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We sawed through on both sides to split the beam. Low and behold it was clearly old Long leaf (heartwood) pine that is why it was so heavy!

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Again, because of the orientation of the large rusted pegs or nails driven through as well as other unpredictable nails it was impossible to cut reasonable 2” thick slices for a more traditional table top. I told the client that I would join these beams as they were and this would become the table top. Having sliced the beam the two pieces unfolded and presented an interesting book matched surface between the two. He agreed and so was the table top thickness and overall dimensions established.

Below was my concept design for how to build the support structure.

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Another view of the concept design.

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After some discussion about wood types the customer chose the base species to be in teak since that would be in keeping with other furniture in proximity. Because the beams as cut were of different thicknesses, it occurred to me that a semicircle with a “U” shape would allow me to vary the arc length from one side to another to balance the beams keeping the top surface flush and level.

Then things got complicated. How to create the arch of sufficient strength to support the weight. The density of this wood is high, the grain rings are 1/16”- 1/8” apart, this is old growth wood (moisture content was 15%) and each beam was 6 ½” x 6” or so. Combined it was very difficult to lift with one person. Clearly the support structure would have to be very strong. If somehow the supports were to give way it would easily break someone’s foot or ankle!

The first step was to connect the beams, then plane a top surface. First things first. As I did this I thought I would begin to figure out the rest. I jointed the beams by drilling 3, Ύ” diameter bore holes more or less equally space long the length of the beams and using a construction polyurethane adhesive, filled the holes, then pounded in three Ύ” steel rods and clamped the beams together. This gave me a permanent and secure attachment of the two beams, a starting point.

As for the arch, I was worried about the stresses on the short grain at the tangent of the arch if I were to cut the arch out of solid wood (even if I could find a board of sufficient width, I reckoned that the mechanics of the forces bearing down on each of the arch legs (creating compression) would be offset by the forces of the legs on the curvature which were intuitively set at 70 degrees. Since the beams were pinned together there would not be a likelihood that they would spread and create tension which would also be offset by the legs. However, my son (Matthew), a career home builder and renovator suggested a bent lamination that would be guaranteed to withstand the forces. That motivated me into looking into a whole different approach which moved me to research the field and experiment. I love projects in which I can experiment with new techniques and learn by doing and at the same time get paid!

I knew the arch radius was going to be too great for a straightforward bent lamination of teak (inside radius was approximately 6”). Bending a 1/8” piece of laminate around the form resulted in splitting the wood. A steam box was called for to make the wood more pliable. Eventually I settled on a laminate thickness of 3/32” which bent around the form without breaking after ½ hr. of steaming at 210 degrees.

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The steam bending of the ply’s had to be done in three stages because the spring back was huge. For each stage I added more bending ply to the form to increase the radius and each time set aside the steamed pieces to dry out at their respective radius's.

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Eventually I ended up with three sets of steam bent laminations approximately 5/8” thick to give me a total final thickness of roughly 1 Ύ” which I thought would be adequate and appropriate.

Since the spring back was so great I eventually settled on epoxying the laminates together and setting them into a female form for final assembly. The literature tended to recommend avoiding using the female form but since the radius and spring back was so acute, a female form became the right choice.

The female form worked well because it allowed me to insert laminate by laminate (with the shape of the form trapping the laminates in place) without having to fuss with clamps for each laminate. Once I had inserted all laminates into the form I could begin clamping.

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I used West system epoxy using West’s 207 activator which is the clearest and knowing that this is the ultimate all weather bond especially for these laminates with such large spring back. Once cured there was zero spring back!

From here on it was a question of leveling, measuring and joinery (I used two loose tenons per leg to fit the legs to the curvature of the arch, each with epoxy). I also prepared 3/8” diameter aluminum dowels which were inserted 1” into the legs and 1” into the top surface, all epoxied.

To determine the cutoffs for each side of the arch I went to my full scale drawing to confirm the outside arch radius height above ground required along with the leg length to insure an overall 18” high table top surface. With this dimension in mind I set up a simple set of measuring sticks set vertically into each mortised cavity connected with a cross member attached to the vertical supports by clamps at the right height of the outside radius. With the levelled cross member connected to each upright at the desired height above the surface I transferred the assembly onto the full scale drawing and marked off the left and right cutoff marks for each side support (which were different from each other). These marks were then transferred to the arches and the cutoffs were performed on the band saw. Exact squareness of the ends was not necessary since the arch ends would eventually be sitting in a bed of epoxy and dowelled to the beams!

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Another full scale drawing view.

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Aluminum dowels.

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Another view of the aluminum dowels.

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Because the two beams, side by side differed in thickness I mortised (routed) a flat surface 3/8” below the surface of the wood and about Ό” wider all around the arch connection points. My idea was to create a well into which I poured West epoxy to permanently cement the legs to the uneven bottom surface of the beams and to insure an unmovable connection of the arch to the beams.

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The final result...

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The Ύ”steel pins actually provide the strength to keep the beams in alignment and unmovable. However, to add some intrigue and additional character to the top surface I mortised in some Makassar ebony keys (1/2”) thick as one would often do to bind irregular surface edges or to deter tree trunk slabs from splitting.

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Another view of the steel pins.

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Table in its final home setting!

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Project complete!

Viewer Comments:

Posted By: JD     [05/09/2013]
Very nice table. I'm sure your client loves it. JD

Posted By: RosieW     [05/25/2013]
Totally brilliant.

Posted By: Birdie Miller     [05/26/2013]
Very nice project and journey getting there.

Posted By: Nancy     [05/27/2013]
What an inspiration. Beautiful. History and another era preserved.

Posted By: Nancy     [05/27/2013]
What an inspiration. Beautiful. History and another era preserved.

Posted By: Christopher Ducnan     [05/27/2013]
Please tell us about the finish you applied to the completed piece.

Posted By: Dennis Devlin     [05/27/2013]
Excellent. I have slabs of pecan which would work. Thanks.

Posted By: Rick Garner     [05/29/2013]
Quite a process - turned out great! What was the final time and approx price?

Posted By: Nick Brand     [05/30/2013]
Just marvelous. As you said great to experiment and get paid. I must agree with Rick - time and cost is a huge factor.

Posted By: hasan     [05/31/2013]
I love this kind of creation - good job.

Posted By: Sally Mathews     [06/01/2013]
Beautiful table! How do you move it?

Posted By: steve     [06/01/2013]
Great slabs and nicely made legs/base. Do they go together or would a lighter top do the legs more justice?

Posted By: Terry     [06/03/2013]
Beautiful table. Great concept, excellent design and workmanship.

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