Working around my portable sawmill, I try to make the best use of every piece of wood. I specialize in salvaged logs, and my products range from highly figured cherry boards to scraps that I burn for firewood. Although I try to keep the scraps to a minimum, sometimes, due to the shape of the log, I wind up with some nice straight slabs that are too good to go into the wood stove.

In fact, sometimes I will deliberately make a thick slab cut because a piece shows good potential for slab wood furniture that I have in mind. This is just one of the perks of running a personal portable sawmill. The Norwood HD36 saw mill that I use handles logs up to 36 inches in diameter, which gives me the ability to cut some pretty impressive slabs. With a few hand tools and simple techniques, these slabs can become benches, chairs, tables and other valuable furniture.

“Slab” refers to the first cut from each side of a log. The process of turning round logs into square boards sacrifices the rounded part of the log. The sawyer’s job is to minimize the amount of wood lost in the process, but there will always be some slabs that are round on one side and flat on the other. Many sawmills sell slabs in bundles for firewood at a very reasonable price. Often they contain good material for slab-wood projects.

Bundles of slabs will typically be between 8 and 16 feet long, and weigh around a ton, so you will need a flatbed trailer to haul them home. Most commercial sawmills don’t have time to pick through slab piles, and won’t risk the liability of letting you load your own, so it is a matter of taking what you get. If you are lucky enough to find a small sawmill operation, or someone who mills lumber as a hobby, you might be allowed to pick through the slab pile. Even if the wood is free, it wouldn’t hurt to sweeten the deal with some tomatoes, honey or an apple pie.

Rustic furniture from repurposed wood

Rustic doesn’t mean rough. This table was built entirely out of wood that otherwise would have been burned as firewood or left to rot in the woods.

Choice Materials

Your first task will be to determine which pieces would be good candidates for furniture. Long, straight pieces will be rare. Use what you can, and cut the rest for firewood. Some people go to great lengths to keep the bark on their slab furniture, but I strongly recommend removing it. Without coating it with lacquer to hold it together, it will slough off anyway, and it likely contains bugs that you don’t want in your house. I use a power hand planer, which is an inexpensive, fast and versatile tool, but if you prefer hand tools, a drawknife or wood chisel can do the job. A gouge leaves rounded marks on the surface giving it some rustic appeal.

Not all of your slab-wood furniture will be made from slabs. Some parts, such as the legs or backs may be round wood. Finding round wood is one of my favorite parts of building furniture, because it involves a stroll in the woods. The trick is to find pieces with an interesting natural shape that are not too crooked. Forks offer a number of possibilities. Old, dead wood has a nice weathered texture, but make sure it isn’t rotted. When I cut some small trees and branches (cedar is my favorite), I use a drawknife to remove the bark and set the wood aside to air dry for a year. It is amazing how quickly a pile accumulates, and the right piece is always at hand.

De-Bugging Your Slabs

The next step is to get rid of insects in the wood. I cannot emphasize this point enough. Having had an infestation of powder post beetles from a hickory bench was enough to convince me that this step is critical. A good coating with a product containing borax (such as BoraCare) will kill the beetles as they emerge from the wood, but is not toxic to other animals or humans.

Another important thing to remember is that wood shrinks as it loses moisture. This means that if you build with wood right from the mill, joints will loosen and the wood itself may try to warp or twist. To make things more complicated, wood shrinks only about 0.01 percent in length, but as much as eight percent in width and five percent in thickness.

Early woodworkers came up with some clever ways to build with green wood that allows the furniture to maintain its integrity, even though the wood moves as it dries. Trestle tables feature tenon joints with pegs that can be tapped in to keep everything tight. Slots allow a tabletop to slide a bit as it shrinks. Generally, it is preferable to get rid of some of the moisture by drying the slabs for a couple of months before starting a project.

Rustic furniture wooden stool

This stool and table were created by woodworker/ artist Jack Divine of Harrison Creek Creations.

Take Your Time

Building rustic furniture takes skill and patience. It is easy to think of it as just pieces of wood glued together, but the fact is, it takes time to make joints that fit together well, especially when using rough lumber and limited hand tools. Unlike the wood you get from the lumberyard, no two pieces will be the same, so don’t expect to use production tools and techniques. What you can expect is a piece of furniture like no other—anywhere. The types of furniture and techniques will depend on your skill, and the tools you have at hand. As you accumulate more tools (and you will) and more experience, you will find different ways of working with wood.

As you look at the accompanying photos and the steps they describe, keep in mind that the wood has to move either in harmony with other pieces, or independently of them. If you try to force incompatible movement (such as a lengthwise piece glued crosswise to another), something is going to give, and you will wind up with cracks in your project as the wood dries.

 If you want to learn more about building rustic furniture, there are a number of helpful books that contain designs, as well as techniques. Making Rustic Furniture by Dan Mack is an excellent resource. It is available online at amazon.com.

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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