In this second part of our three-part series, we’ll take a look at how we design a live edge conference table with a slab top. It’s not the same as a normal project. If you’re not clear on what a slab is, please take a look at Part 1.
At Paul Downs, the act of design consists of finding answers to a set of questions about function. What does a conference table need to do? At very least, each design should solve these problems:
- The size and shape should maximize use of the available space, to accommodate as many users as required.
- The table should be shippable. It should be able to pass through trucks, elevators, doors, and all the other tight spaces between our shop and the final destination.
- The table should have a smooth, sturdy, and durable work surface.
- All users should be able to see and hear each other.
- The plugs should be easily accessible without a mess of loose wires.
- Nobody bashes knees or feet into the table, and nobody kicks another user.
- The table should be unique and beautiful.
- All of those solutions should be delivered within the target budget.
Possible Constraints Using Slabs
We have a very wide variety of materials and techniques to deploy as we solve all of these problems. Using a slab for the tabletop severely constrains some of these choices, in this way:
- Size, shape, and seating capacity: we’re stuck with the slab. Most of them are roughly rectangular, and less than 48” wide. They are usually narrower at one end than the other. We won’t be able to make rounds, ovals, V’s, or U’s without losing the live edge. Slab tables usually end up sitting 8-10 users.
- Larger tables can be made of multiple slabs (here is an example.) This will accommodate more users. Multiple slab tables can be as large as you want.
- Shippable: It’s very risky to make any single piece of a table longer than 8 feet. Any larger? Elevators and tight corners will be a problem. Larger and heavier pieces are also prone to being dropped during installation. We normally make very large tables out of multiple veneered pieces to avoid this problem. Slab tables can be made using multiple pieces. It’s still critical to double check that the delivery path will work.
- Smooth, sturdy, and durable: slabs by their nature are riddled with defects. Knots, cracks, strange edge contours: all of these can impede writing and make the edge of the table uncomfortable to the touch. It’s often best to leave the untouched edges in the center of the table, and to machine smooth edges where the users sit. Again, see this table for an example.
- Sightlines: Slabs tend to be narrow at one end. This can make it hard for all users to see each other. On the other hand, slab tables usually aren’t very large. You’ll get at most 10 people around most slabs. They will be able to hear each other.
- Wire accessibility without a mess: This can be solved. It’s mostly a function of the design of the base. River tables, with the live edges framing a central wiring trough, work well.
- Legroom: It’s usually possible to keep table structure out of the way of users, but the narrowness of slabs often leads to unwanted footsie under the table.
- Unique and beautiful: finally, the slab excels! Fantastic wood may make all of the other deficits bearable.
- Reasonable budget: possible, but most slabs will be more expensive than a comparable table made using other techniques.
What it all boils down to: when you choose the slab, a lot of your other decisions are made
In our shop, the design process is separate from production. We don’t just think of stuff and start building – there’s always a client involved. We spend a lot of effort to clearly communicate what we intend to do for our clients. This allows for a productive back-and-forth in the early stages of the project and prevents unpleasant surprises on delivery day.
Our primary tool in this process is Sketchup, with the Podium rendering engine. We have extensive libraries of woods and other materials, so we can build models that show very clearly what the finished table will look like. Here’s an example:
If we are going to make a useful Sketchup model of our prospective slab table, we need good photographs of our slabs. (One of the essential requirements for your slab provider, as discussed in Part 1.) Then we’ll have to do some Photoshop trickery to clean the shots up, and import those images into Sketchup. Then we do some Sketchup trickery and voila. Here’s our ash slab floating in space in Sketchup Land, with chairs for scale:
This is the slab exactly as we got it. It’s 120.5″ long, and averages 44″ wide. It will accommodate 8 users comfortably.
In order to turn this slab into a table in real life, we need to add a base. The minimum function of this element is to hold the top securely at the proper height and to prevent shaking or shimmying or other movements while the table is used. Bases come in infinite variety. Different styles go in and out of fashion. We could decide to support our slab with a very simple steel base, bolted to the top. This is currently a popular approach. Here’s what it would look like:
Are we done? Yes, if we don’t care about keeping people from hitting their knees inadvertently or whether they can plug their devices in during a meeting. And the large crack at the end will be annoying to whoever sits there. There’s more: the sharp corners will be an unpleasant surprise if someone needs to brush past the table.
Upgrading Your Slab Table Design
I’m going to upgrade this design by removing the obvious ergonomic hazards and adding wiring. I’ll need to:
- Do some judicious trimming to the slab to make its corners smoother, and fill in the large cracks.
- Find a base design that doesn’t put structure where people’s knees are likely to be.
- Add power and data plugs at two points in the top of the table, with covered wire runs to the floor.
I’m going to choose one of our standard bases that accomplishes points two & three. Here’s that base design (shown with the top made transparent):
This base has been sized to allow generous leg clearance at both the ends and sides of the table. The plugs (USB, ethernet, and power) will be mounted in the base. This will allow us to change the wiring if, sorry, when the current connectors are replaced by something new in the future. We don’t have to discard the table or look at an obsolete power/data unit when all the technology changes.
We’ll access all of that by hatches incorporated into the tabletop. These will be made using the slab itself, i.e. there will be no interruption of the grain across the hatch. This is quite tricky to fabricate. They will be elegant and unobtrusive. Here’s an example of a similar hatch, done in a solid maple slab:
We’ll go into more detail as to the trimming, smoothing, and filling the cracks in the last part of this series, showing how we build this table. Here’s what the finished table will look like:
Keep in mind that this is what our table will actually look like – it’s not some generic depiction of a table, it’s what our client will see. This design process allows us to avoid any surprises on delivery day. We can tinker with the design before cutting any wood, and we can provide exact pricing on the table we show. This is a huge advantage.
We’ve designed a very solid, sturdy table that accomplishes everything on our functional list except one item: it will be very hard to move. Not the base – that’s in 3 pieces, and can be assembled in minutes. It’s the top: the slab is too large to fit in most elevators. It’s a little less than 10 feet long after trimming, and it weighs about 200 lbs. It will be an unpleasant morning humping it up the stairs if that is required.
Making An Easy To Move Table Using Slabs
If I want to make a slab table that is easier to move and install, I need to either keep it very small or make it out of multiple pieces. Which brings me to the second set of slabs I bought. These are two slices from an English elm tree:
They’re also big: each is 115″ long and about 27″ wide at their widest point (that’s a double-width door behind them, to give you some scale). But because they aren’t as wide and heavy as our ash slab, it will be possible to move them more easily.
Designing with a book-matched pair gives us many more options than using a single slab. We can introduce a center stripe that will give us size and shape variations. We can also flip one of the slabs to provide a different kind of symmetry. Here are four possible arrangements, shown with chairs for scale.
Bookmatch with added center strip:
Keystone (good for videoconferencing):
Flip (one slab flipped and rotated):
These images demonstrate how easy it is to use Sketchup to explore various arrangements of the slab. In real life, the clients’ needs will drive the choice of which size and shape work best.