Oak Table Tops: Solid Wood Versus the Alternatives

      For oak restaurant tables, solid wood may be cheaper in the end than hassling with the other possibilities. March 9, 2008

I want to make solid 3/4" oak table tops (with biscuits) for my brother's restaurant, about 36" square, and we want to layer it on top of 1/2" or 3/4" MDF for weight and thickness. Then we'll edge them in 1 1/2" oak. How should I secure them to the MDF - glue or just screws? Is there any problem going over MDF? We're in dry Colorado. And what's the best clear finish for this? Is oil poly okay?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor K:
If you are going to band them anyway, you would be better served with oak plywood. Solid wood needs to be able to move when it expands and contracts. If you use solid wood and glue or screw it to something that will not move, you are asking for trouble, in my opinion.

From contributor J:
Save yourself time and grief and just glue the top up with 1-1/2" oak. Then you can run it through a belt sander and be done. Keep it simple.

From contributor W:
I agree with solid oak. Oak plywood will easily gouge through, and repair will not go well. If the solid gets gouged, you can fill and refinish to your heart's content. For solid on MDF, etc., you would have to get fancy to float the solid top. Not worth the effort.

From the original questioner:
I would love to do 1 1/2" solid oak, but this needs to be done on a tight budget. This would cost too much. We're worried that plywood won't last very long. That's what I wanted to do first. But you're thinking that 3/4 over MDF will cause some movement issues, right? So just find some pre-made, or find a good deal on thicker solid oak.

From contributor H:
If you can't use 1 1/2" solid, I'd use 3/4" solid, banded on a MDF or ply frame. I'd screw it together and be sure to elongate the holes to allow movement of the top. I wouldn't use veneered ply; too easy to have someone cut through it.

From contributor Y:
How about using laminate flooring that looks like oak on your MDF, and band it? Or even better, use some of Bella Wood's oak flooring and band that? You should be able to install the Bella Wood the same as if you were installing it to a floor and have no problems, and what a tough finish you would have, also eliminating that project, other than finishing the banding.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the ideas. Has anyone out there ever made a table top using flooring? But if I can't glue the pieces together (and most laminates now are glue-less), then eventually water, soda, etc. will spill and get under there and cause problems. It's an idea, but I'm not nuts about it, not for restaurant use. I think 3/4 solid over MDF is the way to go, and all I have to do is elongate the screw holes, and that will take care of it? What about the band - that's going to be secured to the solid top and the MDF bottom - no issues there, right? These tops don't have to last for 10 years, but they do need to hold up for a few!

From contributor W:
Heck, the laminate flooring is used in kitchens where they are mopped, etc. - same for the Bellawood stuff. Checking with Lumber Liquidators should get you a wide selection at a good price.

From contributor N:
6/4 or 8/4 red oak can't be more expensive than your time. I can't imagine you can monkey around with gluing up the 4/4, figuring out some way to attach it to a substrate without it blowing up, and then edge banding it with thicker stock cheaper than just gluing up the thicker stock to begin with. Oak is cheap, and you'll have a better product with less labor and headache. How many tables are we talking about here?

From contributor S:
I agree; you are going to spend way more time trying to engineer this table top that is doomed to failure. For the small amount of extra money for 6/4, the tables will last forever (money well spent). Don't make it harder than it has to be.

From contributor Y:
My thought was that the Bella Wood was pre-finished with as good a finish as you could find, and would save you the work. I do agree on the solid oak - it seems like you're making more work out of this project than necessary. But if you are going to use a substrate, consider water resistant press board (what is used in countertops). If MDF gets moisture in it, it will expand and flake apart. If I were doing your project, I would use the 6/4 or 8/4 solid oak.

From contributor Z:
Why not lay it up as a butcherblock top? No edging needed, solid wood, way easier, I would think.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. Yes - thicker solid oak, routered edge and done - that has not been ruled out. That is definitely my first choice. I haven't yet had the time to try to locate or price some 6/4 or 8/4 so I don't even know how much cost we're talking about, but I did want to have some backup ideas in case the cost was too much. Would a single row of biscuits be enough or should they be doubled? And what finish would you suggest after the stain (it will be done by hand in my garage)? Should I just stick to poly?

From contributor M:
I'm going to throw another idea out that might be worth considering. Use the 4/4 oak for the center of the top, then along the long grain edge, either laminate 4/4 together or use 8/4. On the ends you could attach an 8/4 bread board edge (being careful to allow for expansion). This would give you the appearance of a thicker top while most of the material would be cheaper 4/4 stock.

From contributor T:
I'm surprised that contributor M was the first response to address movement of a solid top. You can't simply band a solid top! Regarding your question about enough biscuits, this is moot, as biscuits will add nothing to the strength of properly edge-glued lumber (the single benefit they convey is some help in aligning the boards).

From contributor R:
Seems to me it would be cheaper to make it out of solid wood, and I would not waste the time to biscuit them. It's not going to give you any benefit, but will add time. Curved clamping cauls will be better in alignment and are a useful clamping aid you should have in your shop anyway. By the time you fuss with breadboards, plywood, and edges, the solid will be cheaper and more durable in the long run.

From contributor I:
Here in N. CA 8/4 red oak is less than $4bft. If you are going that way, cut them long, plane them, joint edges, wet edges, apply Gorilla Glue, clamp real tight, belt sand top and bottom, cut to finish size, 3/4 round over on the edge, finish sand, apply finish of choice.

A saying in my shop is... "You aren't saving me money by being cheap with the glue; no ooze, you lose."

For cost, I think the flooring idea over ply with 3/4 edging is best. If you need more weight, double up the ply. Nothing says you can't glue the flooring.

From contributor B:
Go with the oak veneer plywood. Get some 8/4 hardwood for the edge banding, with 3 coats of Minwax high build, good to go. I've made hundreds. Still in fine shape. You would have to dig pretty hard to get through the poly and the veneer. One sheet of ply can yield 8 24"x24" tops or 4 24" x 48" tops. In 20 minutes they are all cut to size.

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