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How to Finish a Live Edge Wood Slab for Rustic Furniture

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 3, 2020 • 4 min read

The unique natural look of live edge wood is one of the trendier styles for those seeking one-of-a-kind rustic furniture.

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What Is Live Edge Wood?

Live edge wood is a type of wood characterized by its unfinished, natural edges. Live edge wood slabs maintain a piece of wood's raw, rustic characteristics, often containing visible knots, grain, and burrs or burls. Since the edges remain unchanged from the tree the wood is cut from, no two pieces of live edge furniture are exactly alike. The natural beauty of live edge pieces makes this type of wood a popular design element in rustic and mid-century decor. Woodworkers and interior designers often use live edge wood for coffee table tops, dining table tops, countertops, bar tops, headboards, cutting boards, kitchen islands, shelving, end tables, desks, and benches.

How to Buy Live Edge Wood

There's more to purchasing a live edge slab than simply looking for a beautiful piece of wood; you need to be sure that the live edge wood slab you buy is ideal for your intended use.

  • Make sure the slab has the right dimensions. When looking for a piece of live edge, the most important qualities to focus on are size, thickness, and flatness. It’s best to seek guidance at your local lumberyard rather than buying a live edge slab online on your own. Not only will a slab purchased online be more expensive due to shipping costs, but it's difficult to know what you're truly getting without seeing the slab in person.
  • Select the right type of wood. Due to the gnarled nature of a live edge piece of furniture, woodworkers aren't constrained to using the traditional types of wood. Common wood types used in live edge woodworking include alligator juniper, ash, black walnut, cherry, claro walnut, hackberry, hickory, maple, mesquite, redwood, sycamore, vachellia nilotica, and salvaged wood. Compare different wood colors to your home’s color scheme before selecting your slab.
  • Choose either a finished or unfinished slab. You must also decide if you want a finished or unfinished slab. Unfinished slabs are much cheaper, but you'll either need to be handy enough to finish it yourself or hire someone to do it for you.
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How to Finish a Live Edge Wood Slab

If you purchase an unfinished live edge slab of wood, you'll need to know how to properly finish the slab before using it for your DIY woodworking project.

  1. Remove the bark and sand the wood. Before sanding, use a chisel to peel off the bark section by section, making sure to work along the edges of your slab so you don't gouge the surface. Next, sand your wood slab using a portable belt sander or sandpaper, starting with 120-grit sandpaper and working your way up to 220-grit.
  2. Bridge splits in the wood with butterfly keys. Also known as bowtie joints or dutchman joints, butterfly keys are small blocks of wood you can inlay into the slab’s face to stabilize cracks and gaps. Use a router and chisel to create a pocket in the slab that fits the butterfly key, then secure the key in place with a clear epoxy. Once the epoxy dries, sand the butterfly key until smooth.
  3. Fill any holes in the slab. This requires a two-part epoxy, but first it's wise to test the color of your finish and epoxy to make sure they match. Apply some test finish to the bottom of the slab so you can see the final color of your piece. Once the finish dries, test a small amount of epoxy. If the epoxy doesn't match, you'll need to tint the epoxy with an additive to achieve the proper color. As your epoxy is mixed, slowly pour it into any holes in the slab. A slow pour lets the epoxy gradually seep into the void, preventing air bubbles. If a hole runs completely through to the other side of the slab, use masking tape or plumber's putty on the underside of the hole to stop the epoxy from leaking out. You'll be sanding the wood slab again before the piece is completed, so don't fret if you spill a little epoxy onto the slab.
  4. Finish and seal the slab. Once the epoxy is completely dry, sand the slab one more time and vacuum your entire workspace to avoid trapping stray dust in your finishing coat. For a simple oil finish, use a sponge brush to apply three coats of polyurethane, and sand with 500-grit sandpaper after each coat dries. Then, wipe the slab surface down with mineral spirits and wet-sand the slab with a 2000-grit sanding pad. Alternatively, for a glossier finish, instead apply three coats of shellac and sand with 400-grit sandpaper after each coat dries. Finish the piece off with a spray of clear lacquer. Before you use the slab, wait for the finish to completely cure.

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