You know those times when you know exactly what you need, and you just can’t find it anywhere? You’re sure you’ve seen it in a thousand magazines, in a hundreds of Instagram posts, but no matter how hard you search the internet that exact thing seems to not exist.
This happens to me all the time with clothes. Some people (my Mum being one of them) will be undefeated, whip out the sewing machine and make herself what the high street couldn’t offer. I am NOT one of those people. However when it comes to a bit of DIY, I am very happy to have a bash!
In this instance, my object of elusiveness was the perfect dining table. When it comes to making tables, it’s actual easier than you might imagine and you don’t necessarily need wood working skills or even many tools. Just a good plan in mind of what you want to achieve and the right materials to do so.
I’ve made a table before, for a small spot in the kitchen where we couldn’t find anything else to fit. That time I found reclaimed railway sleepers, and had them glued together in a joinery workshop. I then had very simple metal legs made by someone I know. The result is perfect for the space – characterful and industrial looking.
For our dining room however I knew I wanted something much more minimal, but still with a characterful top that I could hopefully use for photography. Everything I found online made with reclaimed wood had a chunkier, more industrial look than I was after for this space. I was thinking more “scandinavian” and “minimal” than “rustic” or “industrial”. I finally thought I’d found the perfect table and ordered it, but when it arrived the table top was much darker than it had looked in the images and it wasn’t right at all. I returned it, and was back to square one.
I decided there was only one thing for it and I set to making my own. I knew I wanted reclaimed wood, and preferably oak. The reason for this is partly that I love the colour of old oak, and secondly that as it’s an extremely hard wood is can be left unfinished. Our kitchen table which I mentioned before is unfinished and 5 years on has had all manner of food spills and felt tip pens thrown at it and it just wipes clean every time.
The downsides to oak are that it’s very hard to work with, and very expensive. Expect to pay around £200 square metre for reclaimed oak. Another great option is obviously pine, which is MUCH cheaper and easier to come by. Scaffolding planks make wonderful table tops, and are cheap and easy to find, as is old pallet wood (although not as ideal for a dining table due to the short lengths), or reclaimed pine floor boards.
To give you an idea of how I went about this, I started by calling local reclamation yards to see if they had reclaimed oak floor boards in stock. I was prepared to drive for an hour, and knew I wanted to see the wood in the flesh. I ended up going to Warwick Reclamation, who had a brilliant stock of all kinds of reclaimed wood. If you’ve never been to a reclamation yard before, you’re in for a treat! Go with an empty car and a wallet full of cash!
They had lots of lovely pine planks, and I deliberated for a long time over this because a pine table top would have cost me around £80-£100, whereas the oak I bought cost me £360. However for the reasons above I plumped for the oak and I’m very glad I did. I lay all the wood out on the floor to choose my planks, and tried to pick ones with the most character and the minimum wastage. Here’s some pointers for choosing your wood.
Choosing your wood
- You probably want it to be characterful. Look out for interesting knots, grains and splits in the wood
- Beware of areas that are too rotten, if you can crumble it with your fingers it’s probably too far gone
- Beware of areas that are too splintery. This will need a lot of sanding and you might sand away a lot of the patina and character of the old wood
- I wouldn’t necessarily worry about wood worm holes. They are possibly a hundred years old and no longer active, if they are active they will look new and maybe have fresh saw dust coming out of them. If you’re concerned you can treat them with chemicals but it seems an unnecessary use of chemicals to me. Once the wood is dry and warm in your house, it won’t be appealing to woodworm anyway. If you’re worried I’d get expert advise (but I wouldn’t be worried).
- If the wood has areas that are very dark or look like they’ve got a black substance on them, I’d avoid it. This could be creosote or bitumen and may have sunk deep into the grain of the wood. Unless you want to keep those patches you could end up having to sand a long way back to get rid of them.
Once I’d chosen my wood I asked the yard to cut it to size for me. This is may be a bit cheeky but people are usually really happy to help, so why not ask! I knew already that I was trying to avoid cutting the wood at home. Being oak, this is tricky and you would definitely need a circular saw or a jigsaw. I was happy to have rough, uneven ends to the table, so the wood was cut to the length of the shortest plank I’d chosen and that is how it has stayed.
Preparing your wood
- It really depends on the finish you are looking for, but I wanted to keep the reclaimed character of the wood and not have a finished article that looked like it had come from a shop.
- Firstly I would dry brush the wood using a steel brush. This will remove most of the dirt and dust, and even some paint that may be on the surface. You will then be able to assess what you want to do next.
- You could wash the wood. Scrubbing it with a bleach solution may help to lighten the wood slightly, but be careful not to scrub away the character! If you like the colour you’ve achieved after a dry brush, then leave it at that!
- You can repeat the above as many times as you like. I scrubbed and dry brushed my oak around three times, until there was no more brown dust coming out of it. I wouldn’t recommend this with pine. You will remove the character that appealed to you in the first place.
- Sanding. Go very gently! I used a fine grade paper and sanded by hand, only over areas that felt rough under my finger tips. This is another beauty of oak, it is far less splintery than pine.
Once you have a finish you are happy with, then you’re ready to join your planks together! How you you about this really depends on the finish you are looking for. You could plane the sides (or find a joinery workshop to do this, they have amazing machines and it takes minutes!), and then glue and clamp the planks for added strength. I didn’t want to do this this time, I’ve embraced the gaps.
I bought a piece of 2cm x 6cm pine from a DIY shop and cut it into three sections using a hand saw. Each piece is around 10cm shorter than the full width of the table so that it can’t be seen from the sides. You could use surplus reclaimed wood for this, or you could paint the wood or stain it to match your table top. I didn’t bother. I laid out my planks how I wanted them, and then screwed each pine baton to the reverse of the table, starting around 10cm in from the end of the table top. Make sure you choose screws that will go nicely into your table top without popping out through the front. I put around 6 screws in each baton, so there was two into each plank of my table top. This pulled together everything beautifully, and straightened out any slight bow in the wood. You might have to wrestle with it a little to get it all to lie flat! You may also need to drill pilot holes into your table top if you choose oak, as it’s very tough to screw into. Make sure you choose the right drill bit so the screws are still nice and tight!
Finishing your wood
- Think carefully about this one, you don’t want to make a mistake after all that work preparing your wood!
- Personally I would stay clear of lacquers and varnishes. They will detract from your reclaimed wood and can yellow with time.
- Danish oil is very good for “thirsty” wood, but I find it quite yellow. Remember, your wood is old, and therefore already seasoned. It’s unlikely to warp or crack any more than it already has!
- Simple beeswax is probably the best thing to give your wood a little protection.
- Or, like me, go naked! Embrace the coffee cup marks, and just keep scrubbing it clean.
- Or see how it goes and stick something on if you feel it needs it further down the line!
I actually decided to do a very light white wash on my table. I didn’t want the top to be white, I just wanted that “silvered” look of very old weather-beaten oak, and this helped it along.
I checked online for tips on how to do it, and the recommendation was generally 1/2 paint to 1/2 water, brush the solution on, leave 5 minutes and then wipe away.
However what I actually did was water down the paint to a ration of about 1/4 paint, 3/4 water (I used simple white emulsion as suggested), slapped it on and then IMMEDIATELY rubbed it away as much as possible with a clean dry towel. This meant I gave the wood a very slight greyish tone, and didn’t make it look white.
The next big decision you have to make is what legs you want! If you search for metal legs online, the most common ones are hairpins legs, and there’s plenty of these on Etsy. You can also get most metal table legs powered coated in different colours which can look lovely. I knew I wanted “trestle” table style legs, so after a lot of searching I decided on these ones from Made in Design. They weren’t the cheapest option at £145, but they were exactly what I was looking for. A little tip though, Ikea make some which are almost identical and a snip at only £10 for the pair. For this instance though I really wanted white (which frustratingly Ikea used to do but I couldn’t get them any more in the UK, although I did find them on the Swedish Ikea website) so I decided to splash out on the more expensive ones.
When your legs arrive they will have screw holes, and you simply screw them to the underside of your table top! And viola. Although I went for more expensive options when I made my table, the whole thing cost me just over £500 to make and I feel that is money really well spent on something that is just right for the space, resilient and adaptable. You could easily do something similar for around £100 using cheaper materials. I’m thrilled with it though, it suits our home perfectly and looks great with the gorgeous chairs from Danish company Cane-Line who do a fabulous range of sleek Scandinavian furniture.
Of course you don’t have to go as far as making a table, you can use all these ideas for photographic backdrops too! If you would like any help or advise please feel free to ask, I hope you’ll be inspired to give it a go,
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