Natural Edge: a George Nakashima Inspired Coffee Table

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Project by Mark A. DeCou posted 08-14-2006 09:07 PM 37232 views 36 times favorited 24 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This Table was SOLD and went to Albuquerque, NM USA.

If you like this type of work, check out this complementary:
Nakashima Inspired End Table that I built
Click for details

Nakashima Inspired Conoid Base Table that I built
Click for details

Want your Own Table??
During 2008 I acquired about 15 beautiful thick walnut slabs with burls and knots and a lot of “Nakashima” style character. If you would like to discuss the possibilities of using these treasures for your home, business, or office, please email me to discuss your project.

I also have sycamore, Osage Orange, Ash, Oak, and a few other Kansas woods in slab form.

email: [email protected]

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Project Story:

This was a fun project. Sometimes, a guy takes the time to build something he wants. This was one of those times. Of course, since I didn’t make any money while I was working on it, so it is now for sale.

I first heard of George Nakashima on PBS’s TV show, “The Antique Roadshow.” As I saw the episode for the first time I thought, “what in the world is happening, and who is this guy, that is so collectible that his work is only 20 years old and shows up for appraisal and it is worth a small fortune?”

I decided after that to start reading about this important American furniture designer and builder. After reading several of his magazine articles over the years, this Summer I decided to read George Nakashima’s book, and was so enthralled that I bought his daughter’s book also, which has many more photos and her insight into their combined work. Mira Nakashima is continuing her dad’s work, with much apparent success. I believe from what I read, that the shape of the base on my coffee table/bench was actually inspired by Mira Nakashima’s designs.

The top of this table/bench is a 2” thick slab of Kansas Sycamore, with two walnut butterfly dovetails to halt the natural drying crack. For those that have never been to Kansas, there is a lot of wind here, almost to the point that we don’t notice it anymore, almost.

The word “Kansas” reportedly means “people of the south wind,” which is a Native American name with several dozen different spellings, but this spelling was adopted by the State. Sycamore only grows naturally along the creeks and river banks in Kansas, and so I assume that it needs a lot of water.

Sycamore trees grow to be some of the largest trees in the Kansas Flinthills, maybe only being equaled by the Cottonwood Tree. The largest example of a Cottonwood I have ever seen sits out in the Prairie Pasture along a creek that I can see from my North-facing office window. Some of the Sycamores are as big as this Cottonwood Giant. One of these days I intend to brave the Chiggers and walk out to this Cottonwood Tree and measure it’s circumference.

Due to the Sycamore’s size, soft wood, and apparent need for steady water, it seems to only flourish naturally here along a water source, below a Flinthill, or in a grove of other stronger trees, which provide protection for the Sycamore’s soft boughs from the strong Southern winds.

Sycamore’s naturally white, smooth, bark is a beautiful sight in the creek across the road from my house, and in the winter time when all the green leaves are gone from the creek and only the dark branches of the forest remain, these majestic Sycamore beauties show up like Aspen’s on the side of a granite mountain.

After admiring these trees for several years, I decided to look into what the wood grain was like. Borrowing a couple pieces of Sycamore firewood from a customer’s house, I found the wood to be very plain in appearance, white-light gray, and stringy to work, and softer than walnut, my favorite Kansas wood to use.

The Sycamore wood was hard to carve due to the stringy grain structure. All of these factors thrown together demonstrate why so many of these majestic Forrest Giants end their useful life as cheap wood pallets on which to ship something important to another destination. I’m not against the harvesting of trees for human use, but I wanted to give at least a portion of one Sycamore tree a chance to “live-on” in a table that I expect will be around for quite some time, at least longer than a piece of firewood, or an old cheap shipping pallet.

My findings and experiments with this wood were at first a disappointment, until by accident, I ripped a piece of the firewood in half on the bandsaw, and discovered a most striking quartersawn grain appearance. The rest of the wood is very plain, but the quartersawn wood is similar in appearance to lacewood, only lighter in color. I then decided to use the light color of the wood to advantage by setting up an environment for my test boards to spalt with mold spores.

What I discovered, was that a piece of quartersawn sycamore that has been left to spalt, can produce a beautiful piece of wood. “Wonderful”, I thought, “I will surely find a spalted, quartersawn piece of Sycamore at some point, large enough to use it on a Nakashima-inspired table.”

I should also add, that using natural slab logs in Kansas is a chore and often an engineering challenge, because if a tree grows anywhere in the wind, it has twists, leans naturally to the North, and often has large cracks that run in the center wood of the tree, making it’s use a challenge, especially when a large natural edge top is needed. These open Prairie trees make great firewood, but using them as Nakashima-style table tops is a chore. But, since the Sycamores are large, and grow only in wind-protected areas, they are perfect to use if a woodworker wants to use a Kansas wood for a thick, natural edge slabbed table.

The second natural challenge for building this type of table with Kansas wood, is that we don’t have many old trees here, compared to other parts of the country. Awhile back I was reading a Kansas History book, written by the State Department of Education about 30 years after the territory became a State, and it said that for travelers of the Santa Fe Trail, the last point to find any wood, for any use along the trip would be a little settlement called Council Grove, about 15 miles for a bird, from where I live.

The reasons for the lack of trees was given to natural Prairie Fires, hunting fires started by Native Americans to assist in the hunting of wildlife, dry conditions in the areas past, and huge herds of grazing buffalo that used to travel these grassy hills looking for anything tasty to eat.

These days, cattle ranchers dislike trees as they believe they reduce the grazing land for their cattle, and so trees are poisoned, cut down, burned, and generally just scorned as “moisture suckers” by many people living on the Prairie today. They do disregard the natural aeration of the soil that trees provide, and that they also help hold down top soil on an overgrazed hillside in a wind, or rainstorm.

So, due to Prairie fires, strong winds, huge grazing herds of buffalo, and humans, trees have only been given a chance to grow in the last 130 years or less, making large trees hard to find from several different perspectives in this area.

Since this top board is 24” wide, and I only have a 12.5” wide surface planer, the challenge was getting it flat on both sides. I built a fixture where I use my router to flatten the top surface, and then I turned it over and flattened the bottom surface, followed by an orbital sander. In a few hours of dust, sweat and work, I had a consistently flat surface for the table, and I can brag that I did not send this top to a commercial cabinet shop that has a wide belt sander, as so many others that do natural edge tops have resorted to doing. The base on this piece has been built from 8/4 Kansas air-dried walnut.

If you’re a Nakashima fan, send me an email, I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for looking,
Mark DeCou


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Want to See More of my Furniture Work?:
If you go to my Mark DeCou Website you will find that I have not updated my website in quite some time. I realize that I need to invest in improving my website, but until that is accomplished, here are some more Lumberjocks related lilnks with updated postings of my furniture work, sorted into categories. Thanks for your interest in my work, and your patience with my website.

Arts and Crafts, Mission Style Related Projects:
  1. Arts & Crafts Entry Table; with Carved Oak Leaves
  2. Arts & Crafts Orchid Stand w/ Wine Bottle Storage
  3. Arts & Crafts Style Morris Inspired Chairs
  4. Arts & Crafts Display Top Coffee Table
  5. Arts & Crafts Style Inspired End Table Set
  6. Arts & Crafts Style Inspired Prairie Couch
  7. Table Lamps
  8. Arts & Crafts Carved Entertainment Center
  9. Mission Entertainment Center
Church & Worship-Art Related Projects:
  1. Carved Communion Table
  2. Carved Roll Top Sound Equipment Cabinet
  3. Fancy Church Side Altars
  4. Processional Cross
  5. Fancy Speaker's Lectern
  6. Church Hymn Number Board
  7. Communion Chalice (Cup) and Paten
Art-Furniture Related Projects:
  1. Sam Maloof Inspired Walnut Rocker
  2. Original Art Carved Tilt Front Desk, inspired by Birger Sandzen
  3. Natural Edge; Nakashima Inspired Coffee Table
  4. Decoratively Painted Box End Tables
  5. Birch China Cabinet for Cut Glass Collection
Rustic, Western, Cedar Log, and Cowboy Related Projects:
  1. Naughty (Knotty) Refined Rustic White Oak & Black Walnut China Hutch
  2. A Kansa Indian and Buffalo Accent Art-Chair
  3. Refined Rustic Dining Chairs
  4. Refined Rustic Dining Table
  5. Cowboy-Western Style Suitcase/Luggage Support Racks
  6. Fun With Cedar Logs #1; Sitting Stool
  7. Fun With Cedar Logs #2; Coat/Hat/Spur Rack
  8. Fun With Cedar Logs #3; Western Style Hat/Coat Rack
  9. Fun With Cedar Logs #4; Entryway Stool
Outdoor Furniture Related:
  1. Kennebunkport Style Adirondack Chair
  2. Outdoor Garden Wedding Arbor
  3. Outdoor Project: Cedar Wood Double Settee

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Still Want to See more of my work?

Start with each of these links, and they will take you to other organized lists of my other niche products:

  1. Custom Knives
  1. Custom Walking Canes and Walking Sticks
  1. Artisan Hat Making Tools

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

24 comments so far

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 5132 days

#1 posted 08-17-2006 02:03 AM

I love to see what artists make for themselves. Provides a nice insight into what makes us tick. I also love natural edged pieces, how they can get ‘dressed up’ while still honoring where they came from. I have a nice 2-3” thick x 4’ slab of natural edge pine I’m going to be turning into an small kitchen island. I hope it comes out half as good.

A shame to hear your going to let it go, I hope you find a way to hang onto it. I’d offer to take it off your hands (It would look fabulous in my living room) but even If I could afford it, the shipping would probably be killer.

Thanks for sharing the back story, and adding some required reading to my summer list!

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 5105 days

#2 posted 08-20-2006 08:16 PM

Another beautiful piece of art. I also think you’re a wonderful writer. Great talent.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

View caocian's profile


47 posts in 5192 days

#3 posted 08-24-2006 03:23 PM


I’ve been waiting for this piece, and the results were worth waiting for. Another exceptionally well-crafted example of your talent.

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 5211 days

#4 posted 08-24-2006 06:35 PM

Hey Scottb, Dick Cain, and Coacian:
Thanks for your comments. The more this table/bench sits in front of my couch at home, the more attached I get to it. It’s still for sale, and I will try to sell it at the Western Design Conference, but the more I use it the harder it will be to sell. But, hopefully someone else will enjoy it also.

Thanks for your comments, they are encouraging to me. I am building a large slab white oak dining table now, and I’m about worn out on sanding the top for sure. And, to think that I thought sanding on this coffee table was a boring process! Sanding is one of those task that I wish woodworking didn’t include. But, I don’t like scraping surfaces any better. The thing that gets me through is the promise of being pleased with the end result, which is what all of us have to realize working through the details of a project that are not fun to do.

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View jockmike2's profile


10635 posts in 5052 days

#5 posted 10-16-2006 07:34 PM

So this is where the asian influence comes from. I’m inspired, I’ve got a piece of butternut I found in Franfort Mi. 2 years ago about 2 in thick by 12 in wide by 10’ long. I’ve wanted to make a bench with it and could’nt get my brain around the legs of it. I’ve been looking for driftwood to make them out of. I don’t know yet what I’m going to do but I can see there’s options. Thanks, its beautiful, so simple, so japanese like. I don’t mean that in a bad way either. You know what I mean. Mike

-- (You just have to please the man in the Mirror) Mike from Michigan -

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 5211 days

#6 posted 10-17-2006 01:50 AM

Jockmike2: I doubt the Asian influence you see in my other work came from this project. I did the Nakashima research this summer, and did the table in August, so the other pieces you have seen were built before my study in this styling.

If you would like some ideas for your table, there are a lot of photo books available wtih natural limb legs on tables. I would recommend any book by Dr. Ralph Kylloe, or Daniel Mack. Dr. Kylloe is an expert on the history of rustic furniture and sells pieces in his gallery, both antique and new pieces he buys from artists. I heard Dr. Kylloe speak at the Western Design Conference and he said that he has between 350-500 artists a year contact him with examples of their work that they would like to sell to him. So, he problably sees more work in this styling than anyone else right now, and uses this insight to photograph and write new books, documenting the history and styling. Mr. Mack is an expert on building rustic limb furniture, and has numerous published articles and several books.

Thanks for your comments,

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 5120 days

#7 posted 10-17-2006 08:05 PM

Nice use of fire wood Mark! I’ve heart those dovetails on the top be called butterfly splines.

View PanamaJack's profile


4483 posts in 4883 days

#8 posted 04-13-2007 02:30 PM

Firewood? (Dennis above) Too big for my fireplace. Right size for my kitchen. This is outstanding. Keep up the great work.

-- Carpe Lignum; Tornare Lignum (Seize the wood, to Turn the wood)

View halfabubbleoff's profile


7 posts in 4871 days

#9 posted 04-13-2007 04:45 PM

Wow Mark. That is fantastic! It looks massive and at the same time it looks like it is about to take off and fly! Well done!

-- They say the best things in New Mexico are at the end of a dirt road, I know I am.

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 5211 days

#10 posted 04-23-2007 05:48 PM

This past week I cleaned up this table, sanded out some minor scratches from using it in a house with kids, and sprayed a couple fresh coats of finish on it.

Why this work? I decided to take it to the Great Plains Woodcarving & Fine Arts Show and Sale in Wichita, KS. I couldn’t figure out a judged category to place this piece of furniture in, so it just sat stately in my booth and attracted onlookers.

The Nakashima sculptural style sure grabs attention in this mid-West area, which is dominated by traditional Country Oak, Mennonite Oak, and Amish Style Oak furnished homes. Not one person that looked at the table had ever heard of George Nakashima, or his daughter Mira, who inspired this table design, so it was good time to educate some people on their enduring legacy. I answered lots of questions about stopping natural drying cracks with butterfly dovetail joinery on the top, and sculptural elements with the base and table shape.

One guy looked at the table for a long while, and said, “that’s just big hunk of wood mounted on a base.” I said, “you’re right, nothing to it, give it a try sometime.”

Many folks actually crawled down on the hard tile floor on their knees and looked at the table from underneath. I was surprised by how interesting this style is to the Mid-West mindset. Maybe there is a coming change in style to Kansas, at least enough of a change for one poor-artisan to make it in Kansas with “weird” shaped furniture.

Still, I haven’t sold it yet.
Thanks for looking,

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View Karson's profile


35224 posts in 5206 days

#11 posted 04-23-2007 06:29 PM

Thats what we all do Mark. take big pieces of wood and make them small and then glue the smaller one together to make them bigger.

Hard to explain how much fun we are having doing this.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Appomattox Virginia [email protected]

View TreeBones's profile


1828 posts in 4829 days

#12 posted 07-26-2007 02:26 AM

Great table.

-- Ron, Twain Harte, Ca. Portable on site Sawmill Service

View TexasTimbers's profile


67 posts in 4621 days

#13 posted 12-15-2007 11:24 PM

Nice work Mark. And as you point out, qtr sawn syc which has spalted canbe outrageously attractive.

-- "Sure, listen to what the experts have to say, just don't let it get in the way of your woodworking."

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 5211 days

#14 posted 03-29-2008 10:59 PM

I updated the text of the story today, because this table has been SOLD, to a person in Albuquerque, NM, the first piece of my work to find a home in that State.

thanks for the comments,

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View rikkor's profile


11295 posts in 4680 days

#15 posted 03-29-2008 11:51 PM

Wow, this is so elegant. I like your work Mark.

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