Can a beginner make a table without screwing up irreplaceable wood?
May 25, 2016 6:57 PM   Subscribe

I have enough surface wood from an old velodrome to make a smallish coffee table or a large endtable - inspired by this beauty. I'd use the surface wood for the table surface, and mount it on... something. But though I'm reasonably handy, I have no experience woodworking.

Is it unreasonable to think I could make something classic and good-looking without experience? Are there good resources for simple designs for the lower portion?

The wood has sentimental value, and is irreplaceable - so I don't want to fuck it up.

Can I do it myself? If so, how? Or should I just pay a furniture maker?
posted by entropone to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Yes, it's unreasonable. Would you expect that someone who's never played the violin before can perform Beethoven sonatas without having worked her way through scales and etudes? It takes many, many times of getting something wrong before you can master it. Sure, given enough time, she'll be able to play enough of it to be recognizable as a Beethoven sonata, but would you really want to hear it? Anyway, you can reasonably expect that you will end up with something that is recognizable as the table you want.

Also, do you have a budget for shop tools? Looking at this, you'll need a jointer, a planer, large clamps, a sander, a router, HVLP varnish sprayer – and the quality (read: price) of your tools, in addition to your experience in using them, will directly affect how good the end product will look.

Why not practice with cheaper lumber? Get it wrong a few times, then build your table.
posted by halogen at 7:07 PM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is exactly what a maker space can help with! From lessons on how to use tools properly to providing resources and advice. I would also recommend practicing with non-sentimental wood.

Alternately, find a crafts person by going to a few different shows in order to get a good feel for someone's work and skill level.
posted by A hidden well at 7:12 PM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm assuming you have a pile of thin strips of wood that you want to glue together. To get a good flush fit between them, you need to use a jointer or at least a table saw. A planer would help, and you'll definitely need a hand plane and a sander, and of course long clamps. That's just for the table surface.

If you want to learn how to use those tools and you can do so in a local maker space or similar, then by all means learn how. If you just want this done cheaply, then pay someone to do it.

The legs could just be simple metal table legs, which are widely available.
posted by ssg at 7:53 PM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

You could try building a base with a plywood top when you're happy with the results, substitute the velodrome wood. One thing to know is that the laminated wood will want to expand/contract perpendicular to the grain. One way of dealing with it is these cleats. You could also make them out of wood. Use some tape on your drill bit to make sure your pilot holes don't go too deep into the top piece.

If you want to get into it, The Essential Woodworker is a great book and can be purchased as a pdf download.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:40 PM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Why not practice with cheaper lumber? Get it wrong a few times, then build your table.

Listen to halogen. I've been a good rough carpenter for years and wouldn't try that table with good wood the first time.
posted by ridgerunner at 11:00 PM on May 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

Another vote supporting halogen. I'm not a woodworker but my father was. The table would have been something he could have done in his prime. Me, no way. "Simple" stuff like that is far harder than it looks because there's nowhere to hide errors. If the timber is irreplaceable don't even think about trying. Like halogen says, practice (a lot) on timber you can throw away, or pay someone. The timber won't deteriorate if you store it properly.
posted by Logophiliac at 12:14 AM on May 26, 2016

What ssg said. You've got boards from the track surface, they're like 1x2 laid on edge. You're gonna glue them up into a big rectangle, but then you'll need to surface it. Practice with some bed slats or something, then make that beauty.
posted by fixedgear at 3:45 AM on May 26, 2016

The base looks like it's just one or a few pre-fab metal pieces that screw into the bottom of the table, so that part's easy. Making the butcherblock is less easy—the procedure is simple in theory but in practice there are lots of ways it can go wrong in the moment and you want to have done it a few times so that you know what pitfalls to look out for and how to get it to come out right—it probably won't look great the first time you try it. Finishing the surface is more about patience and having good technique than anything else—sanding and staining/varnishing aren't hard, but again you want to have enough experience that you can do it systematically and you want to have tried it out enough times that you know what the end result will look like.

This is not an unreasonable project at all, though! Anybody with enough space and the right tools (none of which need be particularly expensive or exotic) could do this, given some patience, some planning/research, and a few practice runs. Do invest in those practice runs, though! Make a couple of mock-ups before you do it for real. This is totally within the abilities of the average handy person—or rather, it's an attainable step up from the abilities of the average handy person. Think of it as a chance to learn a new skill—making butcherblock—and then to show it off once you've achieved proficiency. Go for it!
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:43 AM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm manager of a university student woodshop and deal with stuff like this all the time. It's not an unreasonable beginner's project if you have help and access to tools, but it's totally unreasonable to expect success if you're working on your own without experienced guidance and access to decent tools. You don't absolutely, positively need any of the tools that some of the posts above suggest you need, but neither can you make this with a rock.

As has already been noted, the table you like is just a slab sitting on a prefab metal base. So, your challenge here is partly sourcing (find that base, or one like it, for sale somewhere) and partly fabrication of the top. Looking at the table you linked to, it's easy to see that the top's constituent sticks were all nailed together when they were a track. I'm not familiar with cycle track construction in particular, but I know that bowling alleys are just a bunch of shaped sticks nailed together without glue. If this is similar, i.e. you have a section of sticks nailed together without glue, then you'll have a structural integrity problem wherever the top overhangs the base. One way to deal with that would be to carefully disassemble it and glue the parts back together, but then you'd have to remove some material from the top and bottom surfaces just to level them out after the inevitably uneven gluing process. It would be very easy to take off too much wood and lose all of the patina that gives it its charm.

There isn't time here to go into the sort of detail necessary to give you a complete plan. Suffice it to say that you should either have a pro do this, or seek both experienced in-person guidance and access to good tools. The chances of your pulling this off in your basement within a reasonable budget and with only book and internet-based guidance are very slim.
posted by jon1270 at 5:56 AM on May 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

My brain is doing a thing where I'm hearing all of this educational and useful advice and my brain is going, "No, I can totally do this!" I have access to some tools, and the strips are already prepped.

Reading up on DIY butcherblocks makes it seem like it's in striking distance. But the difficulty of having shorter planks and an even distribution of them (ie, the length of the table would be two of these strips) makes jon1270's point about structural integrity seem pretty major.

I've got a carpenter uncle who might take this on as a favor, and I think I'll go that route.
posted by entropone at 6:39 AM on May 26, 2016

If you have an IKEA near you, you can buy a coffee table from them (or any other basic table) and use the base of that as the base for your new, beautifully topped table.

Unfortunately I haven't been to IKEA for a while so I can't offer a specific model, but a lot of their 'furniture is such that it can be easily modified, sometimes for the better.
posted by From Bklyn at 7:46 AM on May 26, 2016

If your tabletop is already assembled and your main problem is making it strong enough, one option might be to glue it to some kind of plate underneath. I might cut a piece of heavy steel such that the tabletop overhangs it about 1/2" on all sides, sand down the underside of the table to bare wood, and then epoxy the plate to the bottom of the table. Then I'd paint the plate black so that it's less noticeable and apply a stain to the wood where I'd sanded the finish away.

You could also, if you have the equipment for it, bore holes perpendicular to the length of the table from edge to edge and then put in dowels. That would look better, but it's harder to do without ruining your tabletop and most people won't have the right tools to do it properly without disassembling the table first.

Another option would be to cheat and set the wood underneath a glass tabletop which would provide the actual structural support for the table. There are lots of ways you could set up that mounting depending on what you want it to look like in the end.

If you just have strips of wood and your goal is to make butcherblock from them, then one thing you'll have to deal with which I didn't mention above is the fact that the sides of the strips are probably covered in all kinds of gunk that worked its way down through the seams of the velodrome floor over the years. You'll need to carefully plane them back to bare wood or it won't work right.

Also if their length is half of what you intend to have the table be, you'll need to plan a way to stagger the seams where the strips butt together. It'll look much better that way, and if you don't stagger then it'll be weak.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:16 AM on May 26, 2016

If you have a bunch of different lengths, that's not a problem. If you have all the same length which is shorter than the total length you want, you will actually need to cut some of the pieces so you have three pieces in some places and two in others. As long as the joints are staggered, I would have no concerns about strength - laminated wood like this is very strong.
posted by ssg at 10:00 AM on May 26, 2016

Is the wood a contiguous section from a flat part of the track? Because that sounds like a lot of the hard work is done.

I totally built a giant reclaimed timber table last year. I had my buddy to help and advise, and access to his well-equipped shop, and it turned out great.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would tell you to practice on some sentiment-free material before you get stuck in, and have a friend/makerspace person advise on your design, and assist your build. Practice putting in biscuits, gluing and clamping, etc. Woodworking, even simple furniture-making isn't magic, but you're going to learn a whole bunch from the first few days that you spend in the shop that will help with your final project.
posted by Kreiger at 12:47 PM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's really not clear if you are starting with strips that need to be assembled or have a solid chunk of floor made of strips.

If you are gluing the strips together, this takes some specialized equipment, like long pipe clamps, and a machine to make the surface flush after it is glued; tasks way beyond beginner woodworking.

If you have a section of floor and just need to square it up and make a base, that can be pretty simple.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 11:37 PM on May 26, 2016

I've got strips, and they're all the same length. So the challenge is assembling them into a tabletop.
posted by entropone at 9:16 AM on May 27, 2016

A hand plane will get it flat and smooth but you'll need to learn how to sharpen it and set it up properly. With a bunch of narrow slats like that , it may make sense to glue them all at once, so you'll want to look into something like an epoxy that will allow for a long assembly and adjustment time. They call it the "open time" of a glue. You'll want to make sure you have a very flat surface to assemble it on it a least a couple of flat, parallel rails.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:30 PM on May 29, 2016

Just thought I'd provide an update, if anybody's still reading along.

I wound up hollering at a builder who makes sets and some furniture/cabinetry. Instead of building it for me, he offered to show me how and let me use his tools and guidance.

So, I ran my pieces through a planer, cut them, assembled them using biscuits and a biscuit joiner, a bunch of gorilla wood glue, and clamps - and once it dried, planed it down again and waxed/treated the surface.

I think the biggest barrier was the confidence to do it, and the proper tools. It wasn't difficult, but having somebody trustworthy tell me, "this is the next step. this is how we should do this" was pretty invaluable.
posted by entropone at 9:40 AM on June 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

« Older Name still on home loan after divorce...   |   Help me not rage-drive my car into a telephone... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.