How To Make A Thick Countertop Out Of Thin Wood

Lately, I have had a run on countertop orders. They have all been walnut (which is the hottest wood around right now), and all 1-1/2″ thick. These jobs could be as simple as gluing up boards 1-1/2″ thick and going home, but I don’t make anything simple.

First, a little background. In case you haven’t read much of my blog, I cut and use as much of my own lumber as I can. I get all of my logs for free and have little jurisdiction over what I get. When I mill the logs I rarely have a specific job in mind. I am cutting lumber and guessing what will sell. I tend to cut 4/4 lumber because it is the quickest to dry and the easiest to sell. It makes up about 75% of my sales, and is my fallback position.

I only cut thicker lumber when I have a really good log that will produce high-quality thick boards or I have an order for it, and then only when I am not in a hurry (thicker lumber takes longer to dry). So, that leaves me with a lot 4/4 lumber that needs to magically grow to 1-1/2″ thick when a countertop comes along. Martin Goebel (a friend and fellow woodworker) would call me an idiot and tell me to cut all of my wood thick, that there is no substitute and anything else I do is just nonsense. I am OK with that, but that isn’t the real world.

In the real world, regular woodworkers (and even irregular ones) are often asked to make some magic happen from time to time. Often, it involves stretching lumber to make a project even possible. And, so it was on my latest countertop, when I was asked by a customer to make a large island top out of their small walnut tree.

In this case, I didn’t have enough lumber available in the logs to cut them thick and still get the coverage I needed. I also needed to get the top installed in just a couple of months and thicker lumber would have made that nearly impossible (without my dream vacuum kiln).

I pulled out a trick that I “invented” years ago when I had a similar situation with lumber that was too thin for the job. In that first attempt, I reassured myself that I could do it because the room it was going in had little light and no one could look at it closely anyway. It so happens that it turned out great and now it is my go-to move (much to Martin’s chagrin).

The concept is simple, but until you see a finished piece you may be as skeptical as I was on my first one. Keep an open mind and be sure to look at the final pictures, and I think you will be a believer.

It all starts with picking out the lumber and laying out the boards to be about 1-1/2″ to 2″ wider than the finished piece on all four sides. For the countertop in the photos, the finished size was 42″ x 96″, so my final glue-up was about 46″ x 100″. After the top is glued up and sanded, it is time to lay it out and trim it to the final size.

The top was glued up with extra wood on all four sides. 1-1/2" to 2" is the perfect amount.

The top was glued up with extra wood on all four sides. 1-1/2″ to 2″ is the perfect amount.

A circular saw with a straightedge (3/4" plywood in this case) is all it takes to trim the top to size.

A circular saw with a straightedge (3/4″ plywood in this case) is all it takes to trim the top to size.

As you trim the top, keep track of the offcuts and their relationship to the countertop. All of these pieces have to be flipped under the top to make up the extra thickness, and they need to line up with their original position. Start with the end grain pieces because they are the most critical as far as alignment goes. Miter the corners, flip them over and glue them on.

The ends of the top are trimmed to length, the offcut is mitered to width and flipped, so the end grain is bookmatched. This view is of the bottom side.

The ends of the top are trimmed to length, the offcut is mitered to width and flipped, so the end grain is bookmatched. This view is of the bottom side.

After gluing the end-grain pieces, do the same thing with the long-grain pieces. The grain alignment is less critical on these pieces, so focus more on the fit of the miters and making sure that the corners look good.

The long edge is trimmed to width. The offcut is mitered to length and the piece is flipped so the outside edges are bookmatched. This view is also of the bottom side.

The long edge is trimmed to width. The offcut is mitered to length and the piece is flipped so the outside edges are bookmatched. This view is also of the bottom side.

After the glue is dry on all of the edges, it is time for more sanding. I use a 6″ random orbit sander for this task. Spend enough time sanding to make sure all of the saw marks are gone on the edge. If you are doing a top with a square edge, it is time to do the final overall sanding and finishing.

After the glue is dry, it's time to sand everything flush. This photo shows how the end grain would look if the edge wasn't profiled.

After the glue is dry, it’s time to sand everything flush. This photo shows how the end grain would look if the edge wasn’t profiled.

The top I did got a profiled edge, which helped hide the glue lines even more. Look at the photos below to see how the endgrain on flatsawn and quartersawn lumber looks.

On this corner, the end grain from the flatsawn boards has opposing arches, but they still blend well.

On this corner, the end grain from the flatsawn boards has opposing arches, but they still blend well.

On this side, the end grain is more vertical and helps hide the glue seam.

On this side, the end grain is more vertical and helps hide the glue seam.

After profiling the edge, just a little more sanding finishes up the woodworking portion of this top. Next, it is on to the finish.

The walnut countertop is sanded and ready for finish.

The walnut countertop is sanded and ready for finish.

When finishing walnut, I usually put on a coat of walnut stain (yes, walnut stain on walnut).  It is a 50/50 blend of Minwax Special Walnut and Minwax Dark Walnut to maintain the dark color, since walnut lightens with age. The stain does a great job of enhancing the rich color without hiding the grain. Waterlox, which is easy to apply and repair, was used as the topcoat.

Now, it's time to bask! The walnut countertop is finished and the cooktop fits without incident. Whew!

Now, it’s time to bask! The walnut countertop is finished and the cooktop fits without incident. Whew!

After all is said and done, I think you’ll agree that the top looks great, and appears to be made from thicker lumber. I even ended up with a few extra boards.

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

29 responses to “How To Make A Thick Countertop Out Of Thin Wood”

  1. Martin says :

    I do rather enjoy being indirectly referred to as an “irregular” woodworker. Scott is correct in assuming that I would strongly recommend against utilizing four quarter lumber for large lamination… Or anything for that matter.

    I see four quarter lumber as the beginning of 20th-century industrialization. We were able to Utilize more accurate cutting; a reduction of handwork necessary for flattening allowed us to utilize thinner wood and faster drying cycles. This also created an environment in which lowered grade logs were yielding somewhat higher grade Thinner boards. My issue is less substantial furniture with thinner boards… This leads to the downward spiral of cheaper, faster, more Homogenous pieces of craft work.

    In this case you were adding more glue lines to a highly moisture sensitive surface. You are just asking for d-limonene issues

      • wunderwoods says :

        First off, for everyone else out there, realize that we (Martin Goebel and Scott Wunder) could argue about this all day long and still not come to an agreement, but we probably won’t kill each other either.

        I would argue that if we are willing to use glue to join boards to make a table top at all (which both of us are) that there is little to no difference in adding lumber to make up the thickness. The scenario I have presented is perfect for glue as there is no cross-grain situation and all of the boards are glued to boards that will move the exact same amount and direction. After all, they are from the same board. You can’t get a better setup for glue. I have no more concerns about the boards coming apart with the additional thickness than I would have without it.

        The thick wood/thin wood argument brings up a topic for a future post. And, that is the discussion of drying thick wood or logs before they are milled into finished lumber. There is a point at which wood is just too thick. Either too thick to dry completely or quickly, or too thick to not crack, check and split. As the wood gets thicker the inherent stresses in the tree start to dismantle the lumber as it dries. Again, I am not saying don’t use thick lumber, I love all lumber. But there is no way on this earth of ours to produce a 12″ thick piece of solid white oak lumber without checking or splitting. If your directive was to produce a contemporary (non rustic) mantel in the 12″ range, it could not be done. The splits automatically put it in the “more rustic” category. I would argue that a contemporary piece this size would have to be built from thinner lumber. Thick lumber isn’t always the answer.

        Anyone else can respond. It doesn’t have to be Martin.

  2. david says :

    Beautiful and brilliant. Thanks for the info.

  3. Dave Vitale says :

    Scott,
    Great post and very nice work! We did the same thing with our granite island top. It appears to be 6 cm thick – if the whole thing really was that thick it would probably crush the cabinets.

    • wunderwoods says :

      The weight is an especially important factor on granite. And with granite, you really have to work with what is available. In this case, the weight would not have been a deal breaker, it was just the amount of wood.

  4. Martin says :

    When the underside corner miter is being laminated with the off cuts, why the differ widths of the off-cuts?

    • wunderwoods says :

      There is no specific reason for the different widths. I had a little extra on the ends and left it a bit wider. Figured it couldn’t hurt in case I gave that end trim a little accidental Karate Kid action while I was handling it.

  5. Wayne C says :

    Love how you added the edge profile to hide the glue lines. great work.

  6. Kevin Schilling says :

    beautiful piece!,,,quick question(s),what application method was used to apply the waterlox? bristle brush, sponge applicator, spray? about how many coats? did you use the watewrlox intended for marine applications or the original? did you thin it at all? and if so, with what and at what proportions?

    • wunderwoods says :

      I use the original Waterlox, purchased at a local Woodcraft store. Apply it with a cotton cloth/rag. Just pour it on and smooth it out. It doesn’t need to be thinned normally, but I could see occasions where thinning would help or be necessary, especially when pieces are large and it is hard to get consistent coverage before it wants to set up. Even if it does start to get sticky, as long as you can pull the cloth through it, it seems to flatten out. The countertop has several coats on it and is fully protected, but does not have a thick film of finish. The customer wants to use the top and be able to repair it when needed, so a heavy film thickness is less desirable. If I was trying to achieve a thicker finish, I would spray the Waterlox, but at that point, probably change over to a conversion varnish with a high solid content. The Waterlox is nice because it is consumer-repair friendly and is protective without being thick and plastic-like.

  7. Mike says :

    Excellent job with this method, Scott. I’ve used this method (borrowed from watching a granite crew) before and have often wondered if I was crazy for doing so. This post really validates the technique and proves that the results can be outstanding. I like that it cuts down on unnecessary waste, heaviness, and cost. My customers appreciate those same aspects:)

    I hope your 2015 is excellent and filled with 100% satisfied clients and net profits!

    Mike
    barndogmill.com

  8. John says :

    Very nice work. What if I wanted to make the entire table top 1 1/2″ thick? Any suggestions for filling in the interior of the underside?

    • wunderwoods says :

      That was a countertop and the middle was built up with 3/4″ thick plywood for support over the cabinets. The middle could be built up with solid wood as long as the grain ran in the same direction. When using plywood to build up the middle make sure to let the countertop move across the grain.

      • Aaron says :

        Couple novice questions,love this method.
        So no glueing the top to the plywood? Would you suggest using slotted holes and screws with washers?

        How would you approach an undermount sink with this method. This is not optional according to warden. Already bought wood so I need to make it happen!

      • wunderwoods says :

        Attach the wood to the plywood with slotted screw holes and washers so the top can float. The slots need to be perpendicular to the direction of the grain.

        An undermount sink will work fine. You can do it single thickness at the sink, or do the same thing as the outside edges and roll the inside edges. Make sure to use a waterproof glue.

  9. Aaron says :

    great thank you very much, from what i’m reading recently the waterlox finish SEEMS to be the most long term hands off option, do you agree with this and if not I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

  10. Ksinibaldi says :

    How beautiful!! I know I run the risk of sounding stupid, but here goes. I have very limited funds just bought the house & we are house poor. I found some red oak glue edged boards at Menard’s that are 3/4″ thick & 6″ wide that are very reasonable. Could I employ the same method as what you used? I worry about warping, As far as building up the underside I’m a little confused if using solid wood the grain needs to run in the same direction, but ply can be perpendicular? Thanks for any guidance.

    • wunderwoods says :

      I don’t see any reason the oak from Menard’s won’t work. I would question “reasonable” though, as their prepackaged wood seems pretty expensive per board ft. In total though, it may not be a lot different for one top. As far as the plywood goes, it is just their to provide additional backing. The counter top needs to be able to move freely side to side on the plywood. Fasten the plywood firmly to the cabinets, but use oversized holes in the plywood to attach the solid wood top to the plywood. Use washers with the screws and only tighten the screws until they start to hold the top in place, which will still allow the side to side movement.

  11. Greg says :

    I have done this many times. I have a wood top in my kitchen done 20 years ago, exactly like this. I would pay more attention to using the right glue (waterproof or water-resistant) and make sure those glue lines do not come loose. Put biscuits or whatever closer together.,(yes, I know, they don’t provide any strength, but I will disagree, and say that they do hold any further openings of any cracks from spreading or developing. Actually I think gluing like this is perfectly fine for any application as long as the wood being glued is not too wide. I like quarter sawn for these types of jobs and not wide. I actually just made one of these tops out of quarter sawn white oak just this week in the exact same way.

    Your outside router design blended the seams in beautifully in my opinion. If using around any high heat or dishwasher, take extra precaution and protect the bottoms in any way you can. I am not sure how much heat and steam those glue lines can take edgewise, but have never seen a problem flatwise.

    By the way, I have used Waterlox before and do not find it very effective for protecting wood surfaces. Unless I got some bad Waterlox, which I cannot count out, the finish does not hold up well to many things that can spill on these surfaces, and it definitely will sheen at different levels, and you have no control over this. I will never use it again, especially after all the positive remarks I heard about it. It bubbles like crazy on application, darkens wood too much, and sheen is way too high for me, and above all, not a durable finish for floors or countertops unless you were not concerned with this and were more concerned about food safety, which it is. Like I said, I could have gotten some that was old, put back into newer cans, sealed and then resold and new. This is always possible when buying this stuff or any other kind of finish that has an age limit.

    Anyways, great job on a proven method for at least 20 years now in constant water areas and high steam.

    • wunderwoods says :

      Greg,

      Thanks for the input. I choose Waterlox because it can be easily repaired on-site without removing the piece, which is especially important on countertops. I have not encountered the problems you have with bubbling or darkening the wood too much, though I have used it only on walnut and cherry, both of which benefit from a darker finish. Also, I have had no customer complaints on durability, I don’t check on them often, but I have enough of them out there that I expect I would have heard something by now. I use a cloth to wipe on at least five coats before I install the tops, using more on walnut than cherry, since the walnut is more porous. I do notice different levels of sheen as I am building towards five coats, but once everything is completely sealed the sheen seems to even out. It is a slow build process, but (knock on wood) I have had good results to this point.

  12. Cameron says :

    Would there be any advantage (or disadvantage) to putting a 3/4 backer, glued and/or screwed between the thicker edges? A quality ply, or even mdf for something more stable? Is is it a no no to put a solid wood over a ply or composite due to movement?

    • wunderwoods says :

      I do put plywood on the underside between the thicker edges. The plywood serves as a good base, but it can’t be securely fastened since the plywood and solid wood move differently. I firmly attach the plywood to the cabinets and loosely attach the solid wood countertop with oversized holes to the plywood.

  13. Josh Billings says :

    Very nice!! Just finishing up a maple island top. Used your idea turned out great.
    Thanks, Josh

    League City, TX.

  14. Scott Rudy says :

    how would one go about doing an inside corner using this technique? I am making an island and it has small ears on the corners that will need to be built up

    • wunderwoods says :

      The secret is in making the grain match as best as possible. In some areas, like the one you have described, you can’t get a perfect matched piece of wood. Do your best to get a piece of the same wood with grain going in the same direction for a match. Hopefully, it is only a small area and won’t stand out, even if the match isn’t perfect.

  15. Scott Rudy says :

    thats what i figured but wanted to make sure i wasn’t missing something simple

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