Learn to work with live-edge wood
Live-edge material is as unique as the tree from which it grew. It remembers and honours its past. Learn a few things about how to work with this unique type of material so you can incorporate it into your next project.
Live-edge material is recognized by its irregular edges that were formerly the outside skin of the tree. When a tree is milled, the beauty of the heart and sapwood is exposed. Saving the bark edge captures the full story of the tree.
I consider material that shadows the outside edge of the tree, but without the bark, to be live edge as well. In these cases, the heartwood and sapwood are maintained, but the outer and inner bark and cambium layers are removed.
By incorporating the live edges, and the inherent sapwood/heartwood combination, you can get some amazing results. This picture or mirror frame is a great example.
Nice and Small
Some live-edge slabs are very large and hard to manipulate. Others, like this cribbage board, are small enough to obtain from a piece of firewood.
Firewood can be cut into usable pieces of lumber by screwing the material to another piece of square stock and running it through the band saw. Just be careful not to hit the screws with the blade.
Using a live-edge slab as a table top is a very common approach.
By gluing two live edges together in a well-thought-out way you can create a very nice-looking piece. Thinking outside the box may give you some good ideas when considering how to use live-edge lumber.
A Little Bit Can Go a Long Way
When the pieces of lumber were glued together for this chest lid a small live-edge section was left in. Not only does it give a strong visual to the piece, but it also acts as a handle to open the lid.
The bark is still attached to this slab in most parts, but it likely won't last long. The bark is coming loose from the wood, and trying to keep it in tact is often an impossible effort.
Nothing Too Fancy
A shop-made softwood wedge, a mallet, a brush and some gloves are sometimes all that's needed to prepare live-edge material for use.
Remove the Final Bits
Once the bark is off you should remove any loose material, so a finish can be applied. Dirt, dead bugs and remaining small bits of material are often all that stand in your way.
A wire brush that can be chucked in a drill will help you smooth the live edge quickly and effectively. It may modify the natural look you want by adding scratch marks, so only you can decide if this route is for you.
Not to stray too far from the free-flowing curves of live-edge material, one great approach to trimming the ends of these slabs is to add a pleasing curve.
Where to get it
Just because wood grows with live edges doesn’t mean it’s easy to find. Most lumberyards carry only lumber with trimmed edges; uncut live (or waney) edges are considered defects. This is because, for most woodworkers, the irregular edge represents an element of rawness that is undesirable and requires additional time and effort to remove.
If you work with a sawyer, getting live-edge material could be as easy as asking for it. Otherwise, track down a specialty wood supplier or order it online. If you don’t require large pieces, or just want to get a feel for working with live edges, another option is to mill your own from small logs using your band saw. To procure suitable material for milling, keep your ears open for chain saws running, and your eyes open for development where trees may be taken down, or firewood on the side of the road. You can also contact local tree service companies and ask them to let you know if they’ll be working in your area.
How to mill your own
Some of the live-edge work that I do requires small-diameter pieces that I can mill myself. Often, this small-diameter stock is also used in short lengths, so I am able to find suitable materials in firewood piles. I figure out which way I want to mill the wood to get the desired live-edge shape, then secure it to a 2×4 of similar length with a pair of screws. The 2×4 acts as a straight edge to guide the log parallel to my band saw fence and prevents it from rolling.
By moving the band saw fence closer to the blade after each cut, I can get multiple slices from the same log using the same jig setup. I need to be conscious of how far the screws penetrate the log, as I don’t want to hit them with the band saw blade.
If you’re interested in milling larger material on your own, consider investing in a dedicated band or chain saw mill. Wood-Mizer and Granberg are two popular makes of these two types of mills.
How to incorporate live edges
Live edges can be used boldly or subtly. One wide slab with live edges makes a bold statement as a tabletop and is a simple yet spectacular way to use it. However, there are many other ways to incorporate live edges into your work, whether large or small. Here are some examples of other ways to use live-edge material.
If you don’t want the live edges exposed on the outside, try orienting two live edges towards each other. This creates a “fissure” look, and provides an open area through which light, cords or other objects can pass. You can also use a created void as a grip to lift a lid or open a door.
Try incorporating a live edge in a partially hidden area, such as along the top edge of a drawer side, for an unexpected surprise and an extra element of detail and character.
How to work it
If you’ve only worked with dimensional lumber before, you will face a number of new issues, including deciding what to do with the bark, protecting the live edge while handling it, addressing cut edges and ends, and finishing.
Moving and handling live-edge material
Irregular live edges are especially prone to damage, and repair is often exceedingly difficult. For that reason, it pays to take special care when handling this type of material. The main thing to avoid is resting the weight of the wood on the live edges, as this can crumple or break an edge – especially if it is acute. You can also use soft materials such as foam or moving blankets to protect the edges. If the ends have been cut, you can stand the material on end and lean it up against something, but be careful leaning a live edge against a wall. A safer approach is to store it flat.
If a slab is lying flat, be careful flipping it over from one face to the other face. Rolling it over by lifting the material onto one edge is another good way to damage the edge. I always pick the slab straight up, flip it mid-air, and carefully set it back down flat. Remember to get help if the materials you are handling are too heavy or awkward to move by yourself.
Materials with delicate, irregular edges can be difficult to secure to a workbench. If the ends are cut, you can often clamp them using bench dogs. However, this is not always possible. If your materials are oversized, or if you know an area will be concealed later (e.g., by a table leg), an easy way to secure them is to screw them directly to the workbench. An alternate way is to use clamps to secure them to the work surface. The downside here is that clamps often get in the way, and they may need to be repositioned multiple times as you work on different areas.
What to do with the bark
You may choose to remove or leave on the bark. My decision on the bark’s fate is done on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, the bark falls off on its own – mostly due to an extreme variance in shrinkage in length between it and the wood. Other times, the bark needs a little encouragement to come off the wood. In other situations, a lot of work is required to remove it without scarring the sapwood. A number of factors affect how well attached the bark is, including the species of wood, the time of year it was cut, and how it was dried.
My most useful tool for removing bark without damaging the surface below is a 1-1/2″ softwood wedge, beveled to an edge, like a chisel. It’s effective for wedging the bark away from the sapwood. Because it’s wide, made of a material softer than the sapwood and less fragile than the bark next to which I am working, it doesn’t readily cause damage. I often drive it with a mallet.
Once I’ve removed the bulk of the bark with the wedge, I switch to a steel wire brush. If there is a substantial amount of work that remains to be done (e.g., the bark wasn’t able to be removed cleanly), I start with a rotating brush powered by a corded drill. Otherwise, a hand-held brush is my preference just to remove any loose material or dirt. As with sanding, you can work across the grain to be more aggressive, but finishing with the grain will avoid any obvious scratch marks. Wire brushes respect the contours of the wood and don’t remove high points or unevenly work through the layers of wood, like sandpaper can.
Dealing with cut edges
The beauty of a live edge is how it follows the grain of the wood. Most live edge material has to be cut to length at the ends, and branches are also cut. These cuts leave straight surfaces that are very different from the live edges. Live edges are very difficult to mimic, and in my opinion, not worth the effort.
When combining live edges with cut ones, my approach varies based on the situation. For tabletops or other applications where the ends don’t mate with other parts, I often profile them with a gentle convex curve. I have also used an “S” curve.
Sometimes I bevel the edge to maintain the angle of the live edge. Since the angle of the live edges vary, this requires me to shape the bevel in a mild twist. I find jigsaws, grinders, spokeshaves, block planes, rasps and sanders useful for this.
If your live-edge boards are narrow enough to be processed using your jointer and planer, you’ve got it easy – you can process them as you normally would – just be aware of the live edges, which can catch on the jointer’s fence or guard and get damaged. For wider materials, you have little choice other than to surface it with hand-held tools such as hand planes, power planers or belt sanders. You could also use a router with a shop-made carriage. With these hand-held tools, you can do as good of a job as machinery, but it takes more time and effort.
It’s common for a live edge to have varying degrees of sharpness and little points, or bird’s eyes, where a small branch started to grow. Although they are a true part of the live edge, I recommend softening them by lightly running a piece of 180-grit sandpaper over them, just as you would do to break any other sharp edges.
When it comes to applying a finish to your project, you can use any finish you choose. However, due to the irregularities of the live edge, I prefer to use a brush to apply finish to the live edge itself. A spray gun would also work well, but I do not recommend a rag, as it can be difficult to get even coverage with a rag. Note that you can use different application methods for different parts of the project (e.g., brush for the live edges and rags for the smooth surfaces).
I hope I have provided you with ideas to inspire you and techniques to allow you to confidently incorporate some live-edge material into your next project.