How to Buy and Build with Live Edge Wood

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While live edge wood furniture may not be for everyone I truly believe that it is a trend that will be sticking around. With this staying power and the sheer popularity of this style, it is getting easier and easier to find live edge wood to work with.

When I built our kitchen table five years we decided to go with a live edge slab for the top. After a visit to one of the local wood slab retailers we picked out a gorgeous slab of butternut.

Live Edge Wood Table

For those not familiar with butternut has a look similar to walnut but a bit lighter in color. The piece we selected has a crotch section at one end and a ton of figure that radiates throughout the slab.

Looking at the finished table every day in our dining room it’s hard not to understand why wood slabs are so popular for dining tables and other furniture.

Luckily, stores that specialize in selling live edge lumber have popped up all over the country. Add in all the backyard woodworkers that are cutting their own live edge slabs with small chainsaw mills and it has never been easier to buy wood slabs for your own woodworking projects.

What is Live Edge Wood?

Live edge wood is wood where the tree has been cut into sections with the outer portions of the tree still attached. Leaving the outer sections of the tree intact creates a stunning visual looking in finished furniture as you get a much better feel for how the tree grew and looked in its natural state.

Live edge wood may still have bark attached, will show where branches grew and were cut and will have crotch sections where the tree grew into two separate trunks or branches. These all add up to a more natural look that is perfect in settings from rustic to contemporary.

Buying Live Edge Wood Slabs

Buying a live edge wood slab can be a bit of a daunting process at first. Choosing the wood species, size, air versus kiln-dried, presents a lot of choices that can make a big impact on your finished product.

Wood Slab Sizing and Pricing

Almost all lumber (outside of the overpriced options at the big box hardware stores) is sold in dollars per board foot.

A board foot equals out to be 144 cubic inches of wood. So a board that is 12″ wide by 12″ long by 1″ thick equals 1 board foot. So does a board that is 6″ wide by 24″ long by 1″ thick. So does a board that is 12″ long by 6″ wide by 2″ thick. You get the picture.

Simply multiply the length times the width times the thickness of a board (in inches) then divide that number by 144 to get the total board feet in a piece of wood. That number can then be multiplied by the price per board foot to get the total cost for the wood slab.

Luckily, most slabs at lumber stores have the dimensions, or even total board feet, already written on them which makes these calculations a lot easier.

The thickness of hardwoods are typically express as 4/4, 6/4, 8/4, etc. 4/4 is equal to 1 inch thick, 6/4 is 1 1/2 inches, 8/4 is 2 inches, etc. Most slabs are sold in thicknesses ranging from 8/4 to 12/4. For large slabs we would recommend looking at wood no thinner than 10/4 as, once the slab is flattened, you’ll want the finished piece to be at least 2 inches thick to prevent warping.

Live edge wood can be anywhere from a few board feet for a small offcut to over a hundred board feet for some of the larger slabs available. Typically the larger and thicker the slab is the higher price per board foot it will be.

So a small slab that could be used for a shelf and a 15 foot long slab that could be built into a conference table will have wildly different per board foot pricing even if they are the same wood species.

There is no real rule of thumb to follow when it comes to pricing on wood slabs. Exotic hardwoods and more in demand domestic hardwoods like figured woods or walnut will be higher priced. Prices can range anywhere from a few dollars per board foot for wood with a lot of defects to $30, $40 or even $50 per board foot for large or highly figured pieces.

Less in demand hardwoods like maple, oak, cherry, etc will often be in the $5 – $15 range but once again this can vary wildly based on location.

The website for Goby Walnut (a live edge wood slab and lumber company in Portland, Or) is a great place to browse as they list a ton of their slabs for sale which can give you a great idea of pricing and wood slab options that are available. When I lived in Portland I was a frequent visitor as they offered one of the best selections of hardwoods in the Pacific Northwest.

Thats gets us to…

Buying from a Wood Slab Company or a Backyard Miller

Most wood slabs are sold either by companies that specialize in cutting and drying wood slabs or by people who run their own independent or backyard sawmill.

Live Edge Wood Slab Companies

Companies that specialize in milling, drying, and selling live edge wood will often have their own in-house team who cover all aspects of the process. This means they will typically be knowledgeable of the wood species they are offering for sale, how the wood was dried and will have a variety of options that best work for your project.

They will also often have their own kilns or send their wood off to be kiln-dried. Kiln drying wood serves a few purposes –

  • It kills any bugs that may be living in the wood
  • Drying time is reduced from years for air drying to weeks for kiln drying which allows them to turn over inventory quicker
  • It produces a more stable product as kiln-dried wood will have a more even moisture content versus air-dried which can result in trapped pockets of moisture

Backyard or Independent Millers

With that said it can be far cheaper to buy wood from an independent or backyard miller.

If you are buying slabs from someone who mills the wood in their backyard I would expect to pay at least 50% less than I would from an established wood slab company.

I have salvaged and bought plenty of wood that was milled in this manner and while I have run into the occassional bug or nail in the wood it has overall been a pretty positive experience. People who mill their own live edge wood tend to really love doing in and are passionate about salvaging and repurposing logs that may just be turned into sawdust or burned.

If you’re looking for somewhere to buy wood slabs near you then searching online is obviously a great place to start. I have also found that Instagram is a great place to find independent millers as they are often active on there. Woodworking is very popular on Instagram so it is a great way for them to connect with potential customers.

Other Things to Know About Working with Live Edge Slabs

Here are a few more things to keep in mind when looking to buy and work with wood slabs.

Is it Dry?

When working with pieces of wood as large as live edge wood slabs then it is vital to start with a fully dried piece of wood. If the piece is not fully dried then it can lead to the finished piece warping or cracking over time.

Kiln-dried slabs will most likely have a stable moisture content of around 8%-9% while air-dried woods may vary quite a bit more throughout the slab. We’ll talk more about moisture meters in a bit and why they are important for almost all woodworkers to have.

Bugs

Many trees have wood-boring bugs in them. 99% of the time they are nothing to worry about and the lumber you buy from the store has been kiln dried and any bug holes have been cut out.

With wood slabs though they are buying an entire slice of the tree from edge to edge. This means that bugs living near the bark or in the sapwood will probably still be in there.

If the wood has been kiln-dried then the bugs are most likely dead as they can’t survive temperatures above 135 degrees.

If the wood has been air-dried though then you have a few options. There are pesticides that can be sprayed on the wood that can help kill off any bugs. I have never personally used these as I’m not a huge fan of soaking my lumber in chemicals but they are out there.

Otherwise, you can bring your wood to someone with a kiln and they can heat it up for long enough to kill anything inside. I personally think this is overkill for the average at-home woodworker but if you’re selling finished pieces then it is probably worth the peace of mind that your customer won’t be calling you in a year complaining about buts crawling out of the dining table.

Cracks, Voids and Rot

Almost all large wood slabs will have at least one, if not more, of these three defects. When we bought our butternut slab to build a dining room table it came with a healthy amount of all three. Luckily, they are all fairly easy to deal with given they are of a manageable size.

Live Edge Wood Bow Tie

Cracks will typically be found at the ends of the slab and these occur during the drying process. Luckily, they should usually only extend a few inches into the wood and are easy to cut off. Just keep that in mind when determining the length of your finished project.

If the cracks extend further into the wood then all is not lost. Wood bow ties and epoxy are an easy way to clean them up and keep them from spreading further.

Voids or bark inclusions in the wood are areas where there are gaps in the surface of the wood. These can be annoying but they can also add stunning visual details to the finished piece. Inlays like epoxy or crushed stone can be added to fill these in and add a unique detail to the wood.

Live Edge Wood Void and Epoxy

Rot can show up in a few various forms. Spalting in wood is the result of the early stages of rot. Spalting creates a beautiful pattern of black and brown lines and, when controlled properly, adds a ton of visual detail to the wood.

If the rot extends beyond the spalting stage then you start to get soft or punky wood. This is wood that is no longer structurally stable and will need to either be removed or reinforced with epoxy or CA glue.

In the picture of our table, you can see where an old branch was cut and the tree grew around the area. This area had begun to rot and left a decent sized void probably 12 inches long by a few inches wide by an inch deep. After removing some of the loose wood I filled in the space with epoxy. In the finished table, this created an interesting visual addition that I’m really happy with today.

Bark On or Off?

Almost all live edge wood is sold with the bark still attached. While this may add an interesting visual at first we almost always recommend removing it from the finished piece.

As the slab dries and ages the bark tends to get brittle and separate from the wood. The bark often has a rough surface that you don’t necessarily want to be learning or rubbing against if the slab is going to be use as a coffee or dining room table.

With that said there are instances where the bark can add a nice visual detail to the piece. Live edge wood turnings that are turned to a thin dimension look great with the bark still attached. Once the wood and bark are turned thin enough it is easy to soak them with a thin CA glue which will harden the bark and prevent it from detaching.

Removing bark is best done with chisels or a drawknife. The rough surface can then be cleaned up with a nylon sanding brush attached to a drill.

Flattening the Slab

Many companies that specialize in selling live edge wood will also offer services like flattening one or both faces for an additional fee. They usually have a large CNC or router table setup that makes the task fairly quick to do. We took this route when we purchased the slab for our table and it was well worth the money.

You can somewhat easily replicate the same setup at home with a router and a flattening bit.

This is a great video to learn more about the slab flattening process.

Best Tools for Working with Wood Slabs

Working with live edge wood slabs may require you to pick up a few new tools to make your life easier. But, at the end of the day, there isn’t really much that is too complicated about finish a live edge wood slab.

Sure, additional details like book-matching and glueing slabs together or matching slabs and pouring epoxy to make a river table effect can add to the complexity. But at the core of finishing a wood slab it usually isn’t much more involved than sanding, finishing, and installing it.

Here are a few tools I’d recommend picking up if you’ll be working with wood slabs or live edge wood on a regular basis.

Moisture Meter

Moisture meters are a great tool for woodworkers to keep on hand in general. Even more so if you’ll be working with air-dried wood slabs as these can have moisture contents that vary greatly even within a single piece of wood.

Moisture meters can quickly measure the moisture content of your wood to ensure you are starting with dry stock that won’t warp or crack after you have completed the finished piece.

Wagner Meters has a great write-up here on all the different meters available.

Expect a quality pinless meter to run between $300 – $400 while a pin meter will usually be under $100.

Track Saw

Track saws are a great addition to any shop for breaking down long sheet goods. They are also the perfect tool for trimming the ends of large slabs or cutting slabs down the middle if you intend to use them for shelves, console tables, or to create a river table effect.

If you already have a circular saw you can build your own track as well. This is a great guide to get started on that project.

Belt Sander

A belt sander makes quick work of removing tool marks from the flattening process and getting the slab ready for finish sanding.

An even better tool for this job is a wide belt sander but those tend to be a bit too large and expensive for most home woodworkers.

Random Orbit Sander

Sanding an entire wood slab creates a lot, A LOT, of dust so using a high quality random orbit sander will keep your shop in much better shape than mine. Any sander that can be hooked up to a vacuum or shop vac will make you life a lot easier in the long run.

Epoxy

Epoxy can be used in a multitude of ways when working with live edge wood. It can be used to fill in cracks or voids or used to fill in entire areas between two slabs to create one large wood and epoxy table.

By combining color pigments you can create almost any color combination you can think of and end up with some stunning pieces.

Chisels

Chisels are another tool that are always handy to have around the shop. Especially so when working with live edge wood slabs.

Chisels are a great tool for removing bark from the edges of live edge wood without gouging the edges of the wood. They can also be used to cut slots for wood bow ties to reinforce any large cracks in the slab.

Nylon Sanding Brush

These nylon sanding brushes are a life saver for cleaning up the rough edges of live edge wood. Once the bark is removed you are left with a thin layer of soft, dusty wood that doesn’t take a finish well. These sanding cups will quickly remove that layer so you have even, solid wood that will match the color and look of the rest of the wood.

Best Finishes for a Live Edge Wood Slab

Choosing the best finish for live edge wood, or any wood for that matter, can be a…contentious subject. Everyone seems to have their favorite finish that they swear by and anyone who suggests otherwise should be forever banished from the shop.

With that said I’ll give you a few of my favorite finishes that I have used on projects over the years.

The first is General Finishes Arm-R-Seal, which is an oil-based finish that leaves a durable topcoat. This is great for applications where the finished piece will get heavy use and the topcoat will help to protect the wood underneath. Think dining tables, coffee tables, etc.

The application process takes numerous coats with a light sanding between each.

Arm-R-Seal ultimately leaves a natural looking finish that goes really well with live edge wood.

The second finish is Odie’s Oil, which is a blend of oils that is easy to apply and food safe. Almost all of the pieces I make now get a coat of wax and oil rather than solvent based finishes.

I love how easy it is to apply and it gives a beautiful, natural looking finish to the wood.

Live Edge Wood Projects

Now that we’ve talked all about buying a working with live edge wood here are a few project ideas to get started. They range from using full sized slabs for furniture projects like tables to making use of offcuts for smaller projects like shelves or coasters.

I’ll just note that another great reason to visit a live edge slab store is they often have offcut bins where you can pick up smaller pieces of live edge wood for fairly cheap. This is a great way to get some material to get started without having to commit to the cost of a full slab.

Tables

Wood Slab table with Steel Legs
Trapezoid Table Legs by MaedaWoodCo

Dining tables, gaming tables, or coffee tables are all perfect projects for full-sized live edge wood slabs. They can be easily finished with a variety of table legs that can be purchased online.

Bench

Benches are a great use for narrow live edge wood boards or perhaps the offcut from a larger slab. Entry way benches or dining table benches made to match the table top are both great sellers.

Shelves

Floating shelves are hugely popular right now and a great way to add a modern touch to any room. Simple floating shelf hardware kits make this a project that can easily be finished in a day or two.

Charcuterie Board

Live edge charcuterie boards or serving boards make for great gifts and are extremely easy to sell even in a fairly saturated market.

Mirror Frame

Making a mirror frame out of a piece of live edge wood creates a really cool, unique look that is sure to draw attention.

This is a good tutorial on how to make your own.

Coasters

Have some really small live edge scraps laying around? Turn them into a batch of coasters that can be bundled and sold. This is also a fun chance to play with epoxy as you can create some cool patterns using different pieces of wood with the middle filled in with tinted resin.

Final Thoughts on Buying and Building with Live Edge Wood

If you’ve made it all the way to here I commend you. This was a long post!

I hope I was able to offer a little bit of insight into what to look for when buying live edge wood slabs and how to work with them. There is something really enjoyable about working with a piece of wood where you can really get a feel for how the tree looked while it was still alive.

Enjoy the process and share some photos of your finished live edge work. I’d love to see them!

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