Live Edge Siberian Elm Coffee Table

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Project by Pete Tevonian posted 09-11-2012 04:39 AM 10639 views 17 times favorited 21 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This table started over two years ago, when a 60-yr old Siberian Elm “weed” tree on our parkway had to be taken down due to a gas leak underneath it. I had a few logs milled into planks, and had the tree guys cut me two large cookies—one from the base of the trunk and one from about 20’ up. Both were then soaked in Pentacryl for a few weeks and then covered in cardboard to dry slowly in my cool basement.

Siberian Elm is largely considered a weed tree since it sucks up all the available water, grows rapidly, drop branches on people, and smells like a barnyard when being milled. It’s been called “the worst tree in the world”. Still, the grain is spectacular, it mills wells, and it’s reasonably hard without weighing a ton. And now I have about 1900 bd ft of the stuff waiting for projects!

This table uses the larger of the two cookies—about 49” x 39” at the widest points. I spent an eternity researching methods and designs (and waiting for the wood to dry) before I finally started cutting. A very generous fellow Lumberjock, Mark DeCou, gave me all kinds of advice and guidance, both in building my big-slab flattening router jig and in the overall approach to the table design. The butterflies are 1” thick black walnut. The mortises were freehand routed close to the layout lines and then chiseled to fit. I then used another pass or two of the router jig to bring the whole surface flush.

There are certainly Nakashima influences here. My original plan was to build a Minguran-style base, but it occurred to me that our wavy, old hardwood floors wouldn’t work well with a foot that wide. It would be almost impossible to level. So I raised the foot an inch and made it a stretcher. The stretcher is made in three parts, so that the individual tenon shoulders can capture the leg tightly. Each pair of stretcher segments’ tenons actually form a lap joint within the leg mortise, and are pinned from below the leg with a long oak dowel. So the dowel runs up from beneath the legs, through overlapping half-height tenons, back into the leg, locking them all together. Originally, I planned to be able to pull the pins back out to disassembled the table, but in the end I opted for stability over portability, and I glued them all together. Now it’s rock solid. The top is held onto the base with simple screw blocks set into notches in the legs, to allow for wood movement.

The finishing process was an adventure, as I had never done a natural finish other than a couple coats of shellac and some paste wax. In this case, I started with BLO to add some warmth. I did two coats of dewaxed shellac to lock in the oil, and then a few coats of home-brewed wiping varnish. After those coats were taking a long time to dry, the fine folks at LJ advised me that my brew had way too much oil. I let it cure for about a week, and then switched to 50/50 P&L 38 Gloss Varnish and Mineral Spirits. Three wiped-on coats of that left the surface pretty. But I had also planned to use automotive polish to really bring up the shine. Instead, I tried a set of sanding/polishing discs for my orbital sander. They start at 1200 grit, and go through 8 grits ending with 12000. At first, I thought I had killed the nice shine from the gloss varnish, but by 4000 grit, the gloss was coming back, and by 12000 it’s almost mirror-like.

The pictures above were taken with only daylight, and therefore the finish looks a bit cooler. Here’s a shot of the table surface under incandescent lights.

At the end of the day, this table was in progress for over a year and a half, once the wood was dry. Knowing what I know now, I could probably complete another one in three weeks! But hey, at least I’m learning!

Comments, questions and advice always welcome…


-- Pete in Wilmette, IL

21 comments so far

View kody's profile


180 posts in 3771 days

#1 posted 09-11-2012 04:59 AM

beautiful.. you have done a fine job…

View redryder's profile


2393 posts in 4595 days

#2 posted 09-11-2012 05:05 AM

I’ve never heard of it but I like it.
Nice photo’s and story.
Did you ever consider filling in the voids (epoxy etc.)??
The butterflies look tight and right.
Super table…....................

-- mike...............

View Pete Tevonian's profile

Pete Tevonian

78 posts in 4411 days

#3 posted 09-11-2012 06:10 AM

I considered filling the voids, but some are quite large. The question was going to be where to draw the line between filling and leaving them empty. I did fill some of the smaller cracks with CA gel glue, both for strength and gap filling, but anything wider than about 1/8” I left open. I kind of like being able to see through the table in place, even through some pin-holes. I don’t know if that will lead to larger cracks as it ages. I did try to get finish into those gaps, though, to seal the interior surfaces a bit.

-- Pete in Wilmette, IL

View Frankie Velasco's profile

Frankie Velasco

33 posts in 3628 days

#4 posted 09-11-2012 07:50 AM

I like the table it is cool.

-- Frankie

View Ken90712's profile


18123 posts in 4681 days

#5 posted 09-11-2012 09:04 AM

Nice work, a real beauty! Great info and story. I had the same issues finishing a table as well until I got up to 6000 grat.

-- Ken, "Everyday above ground is a good day!"

View Monte Pittman's profile

Monte Pittman

30679 posts in 3831 days

#6 posted 09-11-2012 09:27 AM

You did an awesome job throughout on this one. I actually like elm. It has great grain.

-- Nature created it, I just assemble it.

View alekhine's profile


50 posts in 4052 days

#7 posted 09-11-2012 10:35 AM

I enjoyed reading the story of this table.
I loved the natural look and the way you expose the story of this beautiful tree’s life.
Well done..

-- Efe Yaparoglu ,Izmir.... Not getting what u wished is a sign that there is something better behind.

View bowtie's profile


990 posts in 3839 days

#8 posted 09-11-2012 10:39 AM

great looking table, thanks for the details

-- bowtie,.....jus passin thru....

View SafferinOz's profile


171 posts in 4367 days

#9 posted 09-11-2012 10:52 AM

Nice looking table! Interesting router jig you made, well done.

-- Stephen, Perth Western Australia, My inspiration – the Carpenter from Nazareth!

View Woodbridge's profile


3755 posts in 3911 days

#10 posted 09-11-2012 03:08 PM

Beautiful table. The overall design is very pleasing to the eye. The top is really great looking, your efforts in building and finishing it paid off.

-- Peter, Woodbridge, Ontario

View Fishinbo's profile


11362 posts in 3668 days

#11 posted 09-11-2012 09:47 PM

The finest among its class!
Well done!

View Woodendeavor's profile


276 posts in 4099 days

#12 posted 09-11-2012 10:37 PM

What were you thoughts on the pentacryl? I built a table very similar and used wood juice form the same manufacturer but still had a check open up an inch wide.

View gfadvm's profile


14940 posts in 4183 days

#13 posted 09-12-2012 12:46 AM

What a beautiful table! That is some nice elm and you did a super job. Those are some serious bowties. I want to do one of these but stabilizing the ‘cookies’ has always been problematic. Does elm have less tendency to split/crack than red oak?

-- " I'll try to be nicer, if you'll try to be smarter" gfadvm

View Dusty56's profile


11868 posts in 5181 days

#14 posted 09-12-2012 01:37 AM

Thanks for the extra picture…really shows the finish nicely : )

-- I'm absolutely positive that I couldn't be more uncertain!

View Ivan's profile


17327 posts in 4360 days

#15 posted 09-12-2012 04:19 AM

It looks awsome, so masive and raw.

-- Ivan, Croatia, Wooddicted

showing 1 through 15 of 21 comments

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