Wood & Resin End Table

Where is starts...

Imagine yourself as a nice, strong hard maple tree chilling in the backyard of a lovely ranch home in eastern Iowa.  You love your space in the backyard—watching kids run through the sprinklers beneath your branches in the summer and sledding down the hill during the winter.  As maple trees go, you have a pretty sweet life, no pun intended.  Until one day it all changes.  There is an especially wet spring and you don’t feel so good. Maybe you start feeling a little colder than normal and shiver.  Your leaves have yellow spots.  Oh please, say it isn’t so! Anything but root rot!  Not only have you come down with the rot, but a whole colony of carpenter ants has taken up residence throughout your root system, trunk, and branches.  It’s like a 24-hour ant tunnel party—all day, every day—until that fateful day when you meet your end.  You say goodbye to the nice family who has taken care of you and watch as the first limbs come down, then your trunk. All that is left —a sad, lonely stump in the ground.

Now this is where the story could end, but not for this wonderful maple tree.  Yes, the small branches head into the chipper to become mulch, but the trunk, that beautiful trunk—makes its way on the back of a flatbed truck to a tiny country sawmill on a gravel road in eastern Iowa.  Once at the saw mill it is turned into slabs of wood of all different shapes and sizes.  That pesky ant colony is still present, and some pieces of the trunk have been tunneled through so much they seem unsalvageable and get tossed in the firewood pile.  One piece gets buried at the bottom of the pile.  Throughout the rest of the wet spring it gets covered in mud, and plants start to grow in many of the tunnels made by the ants.  In fact, it becomes its own sort of ecosystem.  It is quite clear that this piece of hard maple wood— ravaged by root rot, reconfigured by ants, and discarded into the firewood pile—is destined to turn to dust somewhere in its near future.  That is until one winter day I, Katie Freeman, found myself at this small sawmill buying lumber for some table projects.

That fateful day I purchased several logs, and as I was loading them into the back of my car I happened to spot the pile of firewood.  I asked the owner of the sawmill if I could take a peek at the pile just in case there was something interesting in there.  He agreed, and I got to work on digging through the pile.  It didn’t take long for me to unearth the small piece of maple, caked in mud with plants growing out of it.  I quickly recognized what a gem of a specimen I had found and added it to the pile of lumber for purchase.  

Birth of an idea...

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I had been searching for months for such a piece, so I picked it up in an instant.  As most makers do, I find inspiration for designs in all sorts of places, especially social media outlets such as Pinterest and YouTube.  Approximately three to four months before I ever saw the piece of maple, or even knew about the small sawmill, I had watched a YouTube video on making a table that incorporated glow-in-the-dark powder.  I was extremely intrigued by this idea and knew I wanted to give it a try.  So, when I saw the piece of maple full of holes and tunnels created by the carpenter ants I knew it was the absolute perfect piece for my first glow-in-the-dark table.

 

Breaking down the process...

Though I appreciated the absolutely raw character of the piece from the start, I did not start to fall in love with it until I started the job of getting through the dirt and grime and letting its true beauty shine through.  In order to make quick work of removing the layers of caked on dirt I started with using a card scraper and a draw knife.  Using hand tools, especially at the start of a project, is a way for me to really connect with the piece.  With each pull of the draw knife I get a sense of the “soul” of the wood.  And oh, what a soul this piece of hard maple had.  As the dirt and grime disappeared a rainbow of colors was revealed: pink, red, golden brown, dark brown, and hints of gray and green.  Simply amazing.

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After using the card scraper and draw knife to get the majority of dirt off and do some initial shaping along the live edge of the slab, I moved on to using a small Dremel tool and orbital sander.  My goal with the Dremel tool and orbital sander was to remove as much of the soft and dry, rotten wood from the slab.  The purpose of removing the soft wood was to provide as much stability to the final piece as possible.  As I used the power tools, which caused vibration throughout the slab, I would occasionally see carpenter ants scurry across the top or out from the bottom of it keeping me aware of their presence.  Sanding and smoothing continued for hours until it felt as smooth as glass.   I place great importance on the smoothing of a piece.  To me, furniture is not just a visual experience but an extremely tactile experience, and I aim for the sensation of pure joy from the instant a piece is touched.

Let it glow, let it glow, let it glow...

Once the piece was shaped and smoothed it was time to get it prepped for the resin and glow-in-the-dark powder.  The vision I wanted was to have the piece look as organic and natural as possible.  I wanted the piece of wood to look like it naturally glowed.  I wanted it to feel almost magical—like a warm summer night when it’s starting to get dark and the fireflies start to light up.  In that moment, no matter how old you are, I believe you feel like a kid again, simply in awe of the magic of nature.  That is what I wanted for the piece.  In order to achieve that effect, I purchased a type of glow-in-the-dark powder that charged best under sunlight and would maintain a faint glow for hours.

Ants in the pants...

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To prep the maple slab for resin I used painter’s tape across the full bottom of the slab in order to trap the resin inside.  I knew it would take several different pours of the resin in order for it to cure correctly because of the thickness of the slab.  I layered the glow-in-the-dark powder in the resin alternating layers between blue glow-in-the-dark power and purple glow –in-the-dark powder.  This was perhaps the toughest part of the process—waiting was so difficult.  With every project I tend to act like a kid on Christmas morning, and I simply cannot wait to see the end result. However, it was also entertaining.  Remember those carpenter ants that occasionally scurried across the top of the wood as I sanded it?  Well it turns out that although I thought there couldn’t possibly be any ants left in the slab I saw trails of ants escaping with each layer of resin that was poured.  This was certainly surprising.  In fact, one morning, while checking on the cure of the previous day’s pour, I noticed a large, black spot sitting on top of one section of cured resin.  As I investigated further I noticed it was not a black spot but a large group of ants huddled together.  No worries, I relocated the family of ants back to the great outdoors and moved on with the last resin layer.

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With the resin all cured and glowing beautifully, it was time to sand, and sand some more, to get the entire slab as smooth as a baby’s bottom.  The slab had so much character and little nuances of color that I did not want to detract from that.  I went with a simple, clear water-based polyurethane finish.  I applied four coats of brush-on poly to provide adequate sheen, texture, and, most importantly, protection.

In order to let the hard maple slab truly shine as the star of the side table, I decided to go with simple yet eloquent hairpin legs for the base of the table.  I purchased four raw steel hairpin legs and painted them black.  I really felt like the black was a subtle contrast to the many colors found within the maple slab.  The completed table has a very modern and organic look and feel.  And as the sun sets it lets of a soft and beautiful glow that lasts through the night.

 

Happily ever after...

The table now sits in the home of a friend (where it is lovingly cared for) near a patio door so it can soak up as much sunlight as possible throughout the day and glow into the night.  From a beautiful tree providing shade in a family’s backyard to a beautiful and unique piece of functional art, the story of one piece of hard maple continues on.  How the story ends we do not yet know, but the important part is that it continues.

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