Wide Board Table Tops

Wide boards are a historically proven and viable table-top material. But think the issues through before you start. May 10, 2007

I am new to the woodworking business and would like to build with wide width boards (tabletops, for example). I am hearing from almost everyone I talk to that I'm asking for trouble. Can this be done successfully, and if so, what are the things that I need to be careful of?

Forum Responses
(WOODnetWORK Forum)
From contributor T:
Yes, it can be done successfully! Check out the April 2006 issue of Fine Woodworking. CH Becksvoort has a good article in it about this very same subject. It amazes me that people in the year 2006 don't realize that there was ever a past! Way back when in the 1700-1800's, tables were made with a one board top all the time, along with just about every other piece of furniture that required a wide board. Ask these same people that say it is impossible how it was done then. People are really ignorant sometimes. They don't know about the same profession they preach.

In any case, I assure you that it can be done and has been done before hundreds if not thousands of times. To all the naysayers, I was in the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Friday looking at all these tables - I can assure you that they are real!

From contributor B:
Yes, wide board construction is still viable after all these years. Lots of people feel it is necessary (or at least safer) to go the 3" to 4" edge glued routine, and indeed many of them are quite set in their ways.

However, don't think there are no risks in going this route. For those hundreds of years mentioned above, furniture makers did not have to contend with central air and heat, so didn't have the intense seasonal changes with which furniture must contend today. Also, when a piece was built in one area of the world, it tended to remain there, thus maintaining a degree of stability in the climate (humidity or lack thereof) with which it faced. As pieces get moved around the US, or elsewhere, climatic conditions change. This has a greater effect on a wide board than a narrow one (in terms of overall warp of course). Climate controlled buildings are the furniture maker's friend, but even if a piece starts out there, that doesn't mean it will remain in those conditions for its entire life.

So, don't back away from wide board construction. However, become very educated in all aspects of wood movement and its causes before beginning an expensive commission using wide boards. Once a board has warped, it is extremely difficult, if possible at all, to bring it back to flat.

From contributor T:
Use the lumber shrinkage calculator on this site! It'll tell you how much movement you will get. Use common sense when attaching tabletops to aprons and such. Maybe start with something for outside. Make a nice shaker bench with some wide boards or something and watch it for a while to see what happens to it!

From contributor N:
Read 'Understanding Wood' by R. Bruce Hoadley. Especially chapters 4-9.

From contributor K:
Quartersawn boards only move half as much as plain-sawn, and are less prone to warping, or at least cupping, and in this day, a lot harder to find wide.

If you want to use wide plain-sawn boards, you can often find some pretty wide stuff in some of the exotics like mahogany. You can use them wide without much worry about cupping if when viewed from the end grain, you can see that the arc of the annual rings is very shallow, or stays fairly parallel to the face of the board. If the board was cut from near the center of the tree, and has the tighter arc from being near the pith, the board will be more prone to cupping, and or even splitting if the heart is included.

There are other things, like reaction wood, to avoid that can be present in an otherwise wide clear board that can cause you a lot of problems. Learning to recognize compression and tension wood can save you a lot of headaches.

From contributor D:
I like them wide, and so do a lot of others. I have never had any problems with wide boards; less trouble than glue-ups. Walnut trestle table, one board.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

No problems with warping, but planing/sanding requires a bigger machine (unless you do what I do - sneak them in the side door of a bigger cabinet shop and let a buddy shoot them through the drum sander). Especially on curly stock, finish is important.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor T:
That last picture is phenomenal!

From contributor D:
That was not the best angle (I just wanted to show the width). Here is another shot from the front. Any picture doesn't do it justice really; that is just the nature of figured lumber - it looks much better in person.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

I have posted pictures of this desk before, and got beat up for "having such a simple design" and such. That was the intent - the wood does the talking. I have seen fancy pieces made from plywood, laminate and poplar. That doesn't do it for me. Give me solid species wood construction. Here is a shot of the inside of the desk drawer - no plywood here; curly maple even where you don't see it.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From the original questioner:
Wow, that's some really pretty wood there. Thanks so much for the input. I really like to see the character of the wood. I think that wide board construction reveals that character so much more than cutting the boards up. Wouldn't a bed headboard made out of that curly maple look just grand? I've got the book on order, by the way!

From contributor J:
Why even worry about gluing the boards together? I built a large harvest table several years ago from a huge beam my dad (who just got a pacemaker) hauled up from the beach. After it dried for awhile I had it resawed into some wide planks and instead of gluing them together, I used breadboard ends to hold them in place with about 3/16" spacing between the boards. Of course I pinned the boards to allow for movement at the ends and under the aprons. Only problem is you have to clean the crud out of the cracks with a credit card every so often!

From contributor E:
Good point! I love it when someone turns a problem into a solution by looking at it differently. I love the wide boards, but trying to make a table top look like seamless linoleum is not sensible. Thanks for the fresh perspective.

From contributor M:
The main reason why those wonderful pieces from time gone by have lasted for so long is because they oiled them before the shellac was applied. So for wide boards, the rule of thumb is oil, oil, oil, before the finish.. And yes, you need to do both sides.

From contributor B:
It seems you feel that an oil finish is superior to a shell coat finish in terms of board stability. Is this because the oil will penetrate the cell structure of the wood, making it less susceptible to moisture absorption?