The New Shop Works

Published Tuesday, August 11, 2015 by Bryan

You should see the look you get when you tell a moving crew that you're taking three 200lbs slabs of slate with you on your move across the country. Maybe it was just the fact that we were standing in a fieldstone basement, and they were suddenly wondering how many of the other rocks in few were coming along. At least there was no further argument when I added, "And this pile of wood too."

Some time in 2005 I was tipped off that an old pool table was being thrown out. It had lived in a cabin, without climate control. The felt was shot, and not much better could be said of the wood structure beneath. I found myself drawn to the idea of the slate between the two, though. Probably there was a subconscious dream of refinishing a pool table for my own house, but there were definitely also thoughts of chalkboards and such.

And so, the chunks of table top made it down one snowy January slope, and up another, into the back of my truck, back to my home, and into my basement … where they sat for seven years. When I first felt the mass of them, the chalkboard dreams vanished — who would feel safe attaching that to a wall? It took a bit of time to come up with other plans.

A pile of slate shards on a benchtop between a chisel and a hammer.
Initial slate experiments.
Several large, thick, wet pieces of slate with a power saw nearby.
Further slate experiments.
A bedside table with hairpin metal legs and a maple frame around a slate top.
Slate success.
The first test came right after building a bed. Much smaller pieces were required, which both alleviated the weight concerns, and also meant there was plenty of material to experiment (i.e. fail and retry) with. I had no stonework experience, but after reading, watching youtube videos, and playing around, I cleaved two pieces that made pretty, textured tops for our nightstands.

Then the slabs sat dormant again. Shortly after my previous blog post, we left Greater Boston and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Thus, the sidelong looks from the movers.

While we moved most of the house, one thing we didn't move was the coffee table. That was a varnished pine concoction that I built in college, and we found it a nice home instead of bringing it along. That opened a hole in the living room, and what else could I possibly see but the weighty, smooth, shady, cool slice of slate?

Some sketches, some planning, a load of lumber, and a few months of weekends later…

A coffee table sits in front of a blue couch on a floral pattern rug. The table has a red-brown wood base and a dark grey slate top.

I'm super happy with how this turned out. The top is cut down to 21 by 42 inches, with some natural cleaving around the edge for detail. It's finished with Glaze'n'Seal, to keep stains off. The base is mahogany, hand-planed planks glued edge-to-edge, so the weight is supported in the direction of the grain. The wood is finished with my trusty mix of mineral oil and beeswax.

This was the first project I've done where I didn't have all of the dimensions nailed down before starting. Given the piece of slate, and the basic height and shape of the base, I calculated the maximum amount of wood I could need, and started there.

Grid-ruled paper with pencil sketches of coffee tables.
'Stage 0' Exploratory sketches of shapes for a coffee table.
Grid-ruled paper with more precise drawings of coffee tables. Math covers one edge of the page.
Narrowing in on final shape and dimensions.

I found the wood at Global Wood Source. They had stacks of beautiful species, and they were very friendly and helpful. I settled on mahogany mostly for its color, which I thought would contrast with the grey slate without being jarring.

Several red-brown boards, each approximately six inches wide and four to six feet long, stand against a wall. Behind them is a 2ft by 3ft slab of slate.
'Stage 1' Raw lumber selected and purchased.

I probably should have bought a planer at this point. But instead I hauled out my hand plane and water stones. Three sessions, each a few hours in length, and I had some roughly jointed planks.

A long board lays on a table. A hand plane lays in a pile of shavings nearby.
'Stage 2' Hand planing and jointing.

I cut these to length - 16 inches - and then determined how many I would need to span from one corner to the other of my slab. After a bit more edge cleanup, the gluing began.

A messy garage scene. On the floor are several boards glued and clamped together, and weighted with a cast iron router table. On a table are several more boards glued and clamped together, and weighted with some electronics and a toolbox.
Glue up 2 of N

The cross-pieces and shelves came together in a similar manner, and once they each had their basic shape, the work began to fit them together.

A panel made of many boards glued together on edge stands on a table top. On opposite sides near either end of the panel are two shorter glued panels fitting into dados in the longer panel.
The first dry-fit assembly.

Sanding was the wonderful process it always is - tiring, dirty, but revealing. With each new grit, more of the figure of the grain became visible. And some day I'll spend more time learning how to capture it on camera properly…

Four pictures of the same piece of wood, arranged in a row. From left to right, the surface of the piece of wood looks smoother.
Sanding 100->150->220->320 grit

I risked doing all five pieces at once in the final glue up. It seemed like the best bet for making sure the whole unit was flat and stable. Luckily it seems to have worked.

An arrangement similar to the dry assembly, but an additional small panel is fit perpendicularly to and in the middle of the long and short panels. Additionally, clamps hold the panels together, and a band is strapped around the whole assembly.
The big glue up.

If each successive stage of sanding makes the grain more beautiful, then the first coat of polish is the ultimate sanding. Though the dust was undoubtedly red, the pieces themselves had been quite pale to this point. When the oil and beeswax hit them, though, they popped.

The same assembly in a slightly different orientation, but the wood looks much richer in color, and has a slight sheen catching the sun.
The first coat of finish.

Meanwhile, there was stonework. I found a simple wet tile saw to work fairly well, even if it did produce large clumps of clay. I took the slab to size early in the project, to be able to double-check and gauge true dimensions.

Three pieces of slightly wet slate sit on a driveway. The pieces look like they used to be one, and a saw sits nearby.
'Stage 2' Continuing on a different track.

Once the base was done, I cut grooves in the bottom of the slab to keep it from moving around. This was by far the dirtiest part - the saw flung tiny bits of slate all over. I was glad to be wearing a dust mask and safety goggles.

A large piece of slate with chalk lines drawn on it. The lines are the same shape as the glued up wood assembly.
Marking where the base will fit into the top.
A large piece of slate with grooves cut in it. The grooves are the same shape as the glued up wood assembly.
Dadoes cut in the slate to fit the top.

The final detail on the top was a cleaved edge. A few minutes of scoring a line along the edge, 1/4 inch from the top, and then just a fun time tapping a cold chisel.

A large piece of slate with a large chisel and a hammer standing on it.
Preparing to shape the top edge.
The same arrangement of slate and tools, but the edge of the slate has been chipped away for about an inch.
Top edge shaped.

A bit of sanding on the top face was required to remove the dusty, scratched surface, and to remove sharp edges. Coats of Glaze'n'Seal went on with drama, and now the piece sits in our living room. It passed the dinner test. :)

Glasses of red wine, a cutting board of cheese, and boxes of crackers sit on a slate-topped coffee table.

Categories: Woodworking