My summer project – finally done

Back when we were living in the Santa Cruz mountains of California, one winter there was a horrifically bad wind/rainstorm. Even from the house, we could hear loud crashes from down on our 10 acre plot of mixed oak, madrone, and 2nd-growth redwoods.

It was often my habit to go hiking in those woods and I'd even improved some game trails into decent walking trails. Down at the lower edge of our property, I found what had happened during that storm: A large stand of mature second-growth redwoods had been undermined by water and the wind took them down, one after the other. A giant's pile of pick-up sticks.

We had those downed trees turned into serviceable lumber, decent redwood being not that easy to get. Sold off a lot of it. However, in my scouting, I found something else on our land.

An old-growth log, no doubt from a tree that had gone down at least 20 or 30 years before we bought the place. It looked like it had been hit by lightning, and then fell over. Much of the trunk was rotten and unusable after that long just laying there in the woods. But some of it was still good — and if second growth redwood is expensive these days, old growth is astronomically priced. We had some milled into planks, and some into raw slabs, intending eventually to use them for furniture.

Life intervened, we ended up selling the house and land, and couldn't take all of that lumber with us. But we took a lot of the best, and picked four of the best slabs we could find among the dozen or so we had cut, and stuck them into storage along with rest of our belongings, as we then spent three years in India.

Coming back home, we hauled those heavy slabs from rental house to rental house, and this summer, Stephanie finally goaded me into doing what I'd said I wanted to do all along: Turn one of those slabs into a desk for myself. She'd already built me the simple but very functional fir trestle-style base, but until this past week, all I had on it was this horrible Ikea plastic-laminated table-top. It was sturdy and functional, but the years hadn't been kind and chips were starting to come off it.

Months ago, Stephanie discovered how to build us a slab-leveling device, using boxes and sliders and our router with a special bit. After that, it was in my hands as I figured out how to properly sand this unusual old-growth redwood, now trimmed and shaped. The first thing I had to do was patch the various flaws and insect holes any piece of wood will have. Then came the sanding, first with a belt sander, then an orbital, and finally with wooden block. In places, this type of redwood is soft, but on the grain it's hard, so my initial efforts were very uneven. Eventually I got it mostly sorted out.

Then came experiments with various mixtures of Tung oil, boiled linseed, mineral spirits (for thinning and control), and oil-based polyurethane. The oils were to help bring out the grain color and texture, and to give the wood a small degree of sealing and protection. The poly, however, was necessary to turn it into a durable but attractive desk that wouldn't scratch or gouge easily. In one memorable mistake, I completely screwed up the finish and had to sand it all off to try again. On the plus side, I was able to get the top side to be more evenly flat.

I applied the finish with foam brushes, and the project being what it is, there are visible imperfections. On the other hand, it still looks pretty darned good for my first effort in furniture finishing, and I think the initial Tung/linseed oil treatments did a fantastic job of bringing out the grain highlights, including visible flame-patterns. The most amazing part to me, as I sit here and look at it, is it's a single piece of wood. No laminate, no separate pieces glued together as is common in furniture-making. One giant desktop slab.

Maybe someday I'll take another stab at refinishing it, but that'll only be if/when we get a proper compressor-driven spray system set up at our next place. So — here's a couple pictures. The desk itself is about 72" long and 33" wide, although only the side and front are rectangular; the back is slightly curved in two spots to show off a couple of knots I just didn't have the heart to take out.  You can kind of see them in the photos, but they're not super obvious.

The first picture is just the desktop, to show off the gorgeous redwood grain. The other shows my computer set-up. The photo credit, by the way, for the graphic being shown on my dual-screen rig is by Ryan Bliss, of DigitalBlasphemy.com. I simply cannot recommend his work highly enough.


About Becca

Owner and proprietor of this here establishment
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4 Responses to My summer project – finally done

  1. Becca says:

    Addendum #1: Wondering what’s on my desk? From left to right: Logitech THX speaker (one of two, the other is not visible, and the subwoofer is on the floor). A fake Tiffany-style stained-glass lamp (using Phillips latest LED-based natural-light bulbs). A detailed scale model of Serenity, a cargo spaceship from the TV series “Firefly” (later made into a movie bearing the ship’s name). Digital self-setting clock. Eyeglass cloth and a case for my desk-work glasses, with a large obsidian egg — which I found as a rock at our last house, then shaped and polished myself. Two monitors, both ViewSonics, but not the exact same model. Then along the front: A coaster, of course — I’m not gonna mark up this desk! Then a Logitech G13 gamepad, Logitech illuminated keyboard, and Cyborg R.A.T. 7 customizable/programmable mouse. Oh, and a Radio Shack wireless intercom unit on the far right, because sometimes we’re too lazy to walk to the other end of the house when we need to say something.

  2. Becca says:

    Addendum #2: What’s the deal with ‘old-growth’ redwood versus the kind most folks know from their picnic tables and outdoor furniture?

    About 150 years ago, give or take, the original redwood forests were being exploited like crazy because the wood was unbelievably good for just about everything. Huge trees, so lots of lumber in them. Fire-resistant as a natural property, and resistant to the elements. Plus it just looks nice. It became a very popular building material, especially in the American west.

    So they cut down nearly all of them. Well, not quite, but around the turn of the 20th century, conservation groups were openly predicting the complete disappearance of these ancient forests. Some groups began buying up land, just to try to keep the oldest trees from being cut down for lumber — and some of these are now state parks in California and Oregon.

    The thing about redwoods is when you cut one down, it will resprout from its roots. It’s amazing in this way, because redwoods have multiple ways of propagating themselves. If you walk into a redwood forest and see a circle of them, there’s a good chance they’re all related, and might even be sharing some of the same root systems, or did at one time.

    Redwoods that regrow on clear-cut land however grow differently than their forebears. They grow faster, with much thicker rings and softer wood overall. If you look at the grain lines on what most call “second growth redwood,” they’ll tend to be spaced widely apart. In one part of my newly finished desk, I counted about 25 years of winters across an inch and a half of surface. Some are so close together, I can barely see they’re there.

    So anyway, that’s why we put such an effort first into storing these beauties, these raw slabs and lumber, and have been hauling them with us from house to house. This kind (and quality) of wood is not exactly common.

  3. M says:

    Gorgeous! What a treasure. Nice work!

  4. Becca says:

    Addendum #3: For those curious about the process details–

    1. General shaping and trimming away of unusable ends (split, rot) and the bark was done with a jigsaw with an extra long blade.
    2. Some initial flattening was done with regular and jack-planes, but it really wasn't working out so…
    3. Stephanie built the simpler version of the router jig shown in this PDF here: http://www.finewoodworking.com/fwnpdffree/offerman-level-jig-v2.pdf
    4. Belt, orbital, and hand-sanding through the various grit levels on all surfaces.
    5. Patching the various holes (insect, rot, open knots, cracks) using a variety of methods, including colored patch material as well as glued-in redwood fragments and slivers for grain in some of the larger problem areas.
    6. More sanding to get everything smooth.
    7. Initial flooding with Tung oil, boiled linseed oil, and odorless mineral spirits in a roughly 1:1:1 ratio. Let sit for several hours, then wipe off with a naptha soaked cloth. This was done about three times per side, if I remember correctly. Tung is a nut-based oil that, when it dries, gives wood a lot of strength. (Note: Yes, working with Tung can be a problem for those with serious nut allergies.) Boiled linseed brings out depth and that warm glow. And the spirits are just something I like to use to thin the oil and make it easier to apply.
    8. Experiments with various mixtures of those three same ingredients, along with increasing amounts of polyurethane. I built up several layers on the back of the slab and it was looking okay — although not enough for full sealing, then switched to the front. Unfortunately, this is where I screwed up. One day early on, I got impatient and didn't wait long enough for the latest coating to dry before I started trying to add more… then it all went to hell, with drag marks and even one area where the previous layers started peeling off. I tried to fix it all with some 0000-grade steel wool, but it only made things worse. Eventually, I went to the belt sander and took it all off to start over again. As mentioned in the post, the plus is I was more careful with the sanding and achieved a much more even surface overall.
    9. So, back to oiling again. After the oil, I changed my preferred mix to about 50% poly, maybe 30% spirits and 10% each Tung and linseed. With each coat, I gave the slab at least three days to dry, although for a while through August, it was more like a week because I was heavily involved in a client project. I honestly don't remember how many layers I applied, but it has to have been close to a dozen.
    10. Wet-sanding using linseed oil as the lubricant and and 320 and 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper, followed by hand-rubbing with 0000 steel wool until smooth to the touch.
    11. Turn over and do almost the same thing to the underside, although because it's not visible, I only did maybe 5-6 layers, and these are just 3 days apart each. Oh, and I did need to scrape some due to sloppy wrap-around drip on my part, which meant a bit of edge sanding and re-oiling.
    12. Back to the top side. Used an automotive orbital buffer with fine scratch rubbing compound, swirl remover, and high-gloss abrasives. That's why it's now all shiny and glass-smooth. Turn over, do the same to the back, and then around the edges.
    13. The base, as I mentioned, had been built a few years ago by Stephanie to support my horrid decades-old Ikea table-top (about 1" thick, maybe 30" wide, and 50" long). Simple fir lumber construction for that base, but elegantly designed. Back then, we'd applied some Watco Danish oil treatment, but not much and the usual direction with Watco is it's best to reapply it every few years or so anyway. Given this, I felt it was safe to try using some of my same mixtures without stripping or sanding off the Watco, and was rewarded with as decent a glow as fir can have without actual stain. So, two applications of the pure oil mix. Wipe off with naptha. Two coats only of just polyurethane with a splash of spirits to slow the drying.
    14. Base re-scribed and shimmed a little bit so the desktop is as perfectly level as we could manage. Assembled and done.