"Live-Edge" Wood Slabs for Counters and More

By David Jacknin

This kitchen island by Jessica LaGrange Interiors shows off the beauty of the redwood slabs (dovetailed together) and the natural edge. Photo courtesy Jessica LaGrange Interiors

"Live edge" wood slabs, that is, wood slabs that expose the outer edge of the tree, are a way to bring an organic element into your home, whether for countertops or accent walls. For example, Jessica LaGrange Interiors used the live edge technique for the dramatic kitchen island shown above, made of sustainable walnut with tagua nut inlay. Live edge slabs are cut from recently fallen trees, the bark is removed, and the tree’s organic edge is

revealed, as in this example of a counter in bald cypress. Imperfections in the wood reveal the natural form and add to the beauty.

Wood slabs are available in a variety of species.  Most people choose hardwoods for their durability but select softwoods can be used as well. On the West Coast, Claro Walnut or Valley Oak are often available. Redwood is plentiful in Northern California. The East Coast offers a wide variety of hardwoods including: Maple, Red Elm, Walnut, Ash, Sycamore and Cherry. Imported woods are also available and include Mahogany, Bubinga, Monkey Paw and Brazilian Cherry.

To find a live edge slab, it is best to check with local arborists or woodworkers or search under "Salvaged Lumber" online. 
Select a slab by considering the grain, color and or pattern.  It is best to see the wood in person so you can check for cracks and make sure it’s the perfect piece for your space.

I spoke with Zen master carpenter, Paul Discoe, of Joinery Structures, about his approach to carpentry and how he brings the spirit of the wood into his projects, like the transom, shown above, or the doorway shown below.

How do you go about selecting a piece of wood? I work predominantly with “orphan wood”, that is wood from fallen trees or local trees being cut for building sites or other purposes.  Every tree has its purpose and appropriate use.

How much work do you with chisels and hand tools? It depends on the client.  We have modern milling and finishing machines in our shop but prefer to finish our pieces the traditional way with chisels. This takes more time, however, so we have to charge more.

Flat grain or vertical grain?
Modernists like flat grain. It has a machine like quality.  In the East, the preference is for flat grain. Wood tells its history most clearly when it is cut at right angles to the radius (flat grain).

What thickness do you recommend for slabs?
I recommend a minimum of 1 ½” to 1 5/8”.

How about drying, what do you recommend here?
Wood should be air-dried at least one year per inch of thickness and kiln dried to a 10% moisture content.  We kiln dry slowly to minimize stress on the wood and to prevent cracking.
Another approach to drying the wood is to just bring the slab into the house for six months to a year and it will adjust to the moisture content in the house.

What are your recommendations for finishing the wood?
I prefer a 50/50 mix of Tung Oil and Spar Varnish. For a harder finish, some people use Conversion Varnish.   Conversion Varnish is considered the most durable finish and can be applied with either a matte or glossy finish coat.  For a food safe counter, use a natural oil such as mineral oil, tung oil or sunflower oil.  Finish up with a natural wax such as Trewax. To maintain your counters with oil based finishes, use Minwax Polyoil.  For a food safe counter use an organic product such as Howard’s Orange Oil to restore the wood and give it luster.

Live edge countertops are a beautiful way to bring something natural into the home and to connect it with the spirit of the place.

NOTE: Brooks Custom, of Mt. Kisco, New York, offers a wide selection of tables with live edge wood countertops.

David Jacknin is a San Francisco Bay Area contractor.                

Mon Mar 13 00:00:00 PDT 2017