Some furniture builds are pretty straightforward, and require tools or materials or processes that I deal with on a fairly regular basis. But every now and then...somebody asks for something that forces me to step up my game. Luckily, I'm kind of a sucker for challenges and this latest project was exactly that.
It started with a client asking for a coffee table built out of reclaimed lumber. After a few conversations, the client gave me a picture of what they were looking for:
Simple enough, right? Basic metal frame, throw down some old barn boards, and you're done.
Except it's not at all that simple. That metal frame would require welding, which I don't do a ton of. Sourcing barn wood isn't difficult, but unless you want to pay silly prices for it (and import the stuff from more barn-heavy parts of the country), sometimes finding good-lookin' stuff here in St. Louis can be tricky. Barn lumber usually requires a decent amount of work just to make it usable; those barn boards - regardless of whether they had been used as siding, flooring, roof sheathing or anything else - don't come off the barns flat, or straight, or without warping and cupping and twisting and, sometimes splitting and rotting. And the size of the requested table...about 5' by 3'...wasn't going to make things any easier; that's a BIG coffee table .
After ironing out the details of the design with the client, I picked up some steel from the place I usually go to for that sort of thing, Shapiro Metal Supply. I've been in enough lumber yards over the years that they don't open my eyes a whole lot anymore, but the steel yards...still a pretty new experience, and for construction guys like myself, seeing different and much larger tools than I'm accustomed to dealing with...pretty awesome.
After picking up the steel, I went out and got the barn lumber. I've bought barn lumber from a number places, but I recently stumbled across a wholesaler - 10 minutes from my shop - that has a ridiculously large and constantly changing selection of lumber that's come from local barns, and with prices that are relatively affordable. It's very difficult to go see the guy and not end up buying 17 times the amount of material I really need.
Once I had all the materials I was going to need, I got to work welding the frame together. As I mentioned previously, welding is still a fairly new thing for me, and I don't have a real great setup for it. As a result, it's kind of a tedious process. Cutting the steel with a grinder, not having a big surface on which to work, working outside in an unheated garage...it's slow work, but work I have a lot of fun taking on, especially when the welds all end up looking pretty good, the welds solidly hold everything together, and the work piece ends up being exactly the shape I want.
With the frame welded up, I turned my attention to the barn lumber. Before I could think about how to mix and match the boards to look the way the client wanted, I had first identify which parts of the boards were usable and/or looked the best, and then I had to use a wide variety of tools to get the boards in decent enough shape to be usable. Everything had to be cut to length with the miter saw, and then each board had to be sent through the table saw several times to cut off the rough edges, or to cut really wide, cupped boards into several less wide and less cupped boards. Following that, both the jointer and planer came into play to get the edges square and the wide surfaces halfway flat.
I've probably written about it before, but with barn lumber, using the planer is a dangerous game: planing off too little doesn't do any good, and planing off too much gets rid of all the old saw blade marks and nail hole discoloration - the stuff that gives barn wood the look people want - making the lumber not suitable for its intended purpose. There is an unbelievably fine line between the two, and after a lot of wrestling to get the boards to a point where they'd sit halfway flat in the metal frame, I went old school and got out the bench (hand) plane.
I used to HATE having to use the bench planes, mostly because I sucked at using them. Like most any other tool, there's a bit of a learning curve - not just using them, but in how to set them up, keep the blade sharp, adjust the tool to do what you want it to do, etc. - but now that I've kind of gotten over that hump, I find myself relying on the hand planes more and more. They simply do a lot of jobs that no other tool, electric or otherwise, can do as well.
Anyways...with the individual boards milled and ready to be glued together, I opted to glue the top and bottom barn wood slabs together in chunks. I don't have any 5' clamps so I couldn't have done everything at once even if I'd have wanted to, but as it turns out...I didn't want to to begin with. Anybody that's ever glued a bunch of boards into 1 large slab can vouch for how much of a fiasco it can be; glue starts drying before you've got everything where you want it, and you need something like 700 clamps to keep everything lined up, halfway flush, etc. Gluing up individual chunks, and then gluing the chunks together, was entirely more advantageous.
It took every clamp I own, and just about every square inch of usable space, but I got all the barn wood boards glued into chunks no wider than 12". Each section consisted of 2-3 boards, which made the glueing process very manageable, and left the chunks narrow enough to fit through my planer for any large-scale post-glue flattening that might be necessary on the underside of the chunks.
Once the glue dried I was able to cut the chunks to length to fit snugly in the steel frame, and start dry fitting everything together.
With everything dry fit to my liking, I turned my attention to the steel frame. I believe the steel frame in the example the client showed me was just left as-is, but I wasn't a huge fan of that **exact** look for a number of reasons, so I had some work to do to get the look I wanted.
When you buy raw steel, it's usually charcoal in color. But when you weld pieces together, you want to first grind down the areas being welded to bare metal, which makes those area very, very shiny (and silver). I didn't like having two distinctly different colors in the end result. Similarly, raw steel sometimes has a little surface rust, grease, dust, and who knows what else growing on it, which I wouldn't want the client getting on their clothes, and which a clear coat wouldn't stick to very well. So I lightly cleaned the steel frame, hit it with a grey primer, and followed that with some flat black spray paint.
Flat black by itself wasn't going to yield the right look either, so I'd paint a small section with the black and then, while the paint was somewhere between wet and tacky, wipe it down with a rag. It's always kind of a trial and error process, but what that essentially left me with was steel that looked like it it did when I bought it - raw, industrial, etc. - minus the rust, dirt, grease, etc., and without the blinding brightness of the freshly ground weld areas. Then the whole thing got a quick clear coat.
With the frame complete and ready for the barn wood chunks to be installed, I started final assembly. Each chunk - there were 5 to 6 of them per slab - was already cut to length, but I still had to plane the sides of the chunks so that 1 chunk would fit snugly up against the next. Similarly, with the chunks being of slightly varying thickness, I had to use to plane to shave small areas on the underside of the slabs so they'd all sit flush in the steel frame, and then where 1 chunk butted to the next, plane down any high spots to create an almost entirely smooth and uniform surface.
The final assembly process required a lot of glue, and planing, and wrestling, and clamping, and there was a little cussing going on (par for the course), and I had to pull an all too legit all-nighter to have the thing ready for the scheduled delivery date and time, and when it was all said and done the shop was an absolute disaster. I got a little nervous when I hit the final product with some wipe-on satin polyurethane, because the barn boards were so dry they soaked up an amazing amount of poly and all the wood turned very, VERY dark, but I figured (correctly, thankfully) that the color would come back to normal once everything dried.
I had a little help getting the thing delivered and after looking at the coffee table in its final resting place, I think - I'm a little biased, obviously - she turned out pretty good. Maybe even better than the one in the picture the client sent me. :)