Live edge tables are everywhere these days. You see them in trendy boutique hotels, restaurants, shelter magazines and swanky real estate listings. The November issue of Architectural Digest features the actress Julianne Moore in the parlor of her newly renovated Manhattan townhouse, draped seductively across a leather chair with a live edge coffee table peeking out from the corner.
It seems that live edge furniture, which has a natural unfinished edge, has replaced furniture made from salvaged lumber as the interior design status symbol of the moment. And it isn’t surprising that Brooklyn — an epicenter of handmade pottery, hand silk-screened wallpaper and small-batch dyed fabric — has its fair share of custom furniture makers who specialize in live edge.
The Story of the Tree
Mark Jupiter is a fourth-generation craftsman whose father made live edge tables with George Nakashima, the famous American woodworker whose live-edge furniture is iconic. Jupiter works out of an 10,000-square-foot studio in Dumbo with a staff of 10 wood and metal workers who build coffee and dining tables for wealthy homeowners, and live edge conference tables for corporate clients like Shake Shack and the Brooklyn Nets. Jupiter says 20 percent of his business is in live edge tables, and his most popular wood species is walnut.
“I feel like they’re timeless,” Jupiter said. “It really tells the story of the tree. The craftsman just needs to know how to handle the wood properly but it’s really God’s table. The slab tells where the tree grew up, how old it is, the shape of it, whether there was a drought certain years or abundance certain years. You can see it all in the wood.”
The story of the table begins when a tree is chopped down and made into slabs, which are left to dry for up to four years. The slabs then go into a kiln to further reduce moisture. From there, they are flattened with a router or planer.
Tables that contain multiple slabs are glued, and cracks are often held together with traditional Japanese joinery called “butterfly keys” (a Nakashima signature). The final step is to seal the wood, typically with lacquer or polyurethane.
Jupiter works with his customers to design a wood or metal base.
All this work doesn’t come cheap. A seven-foot live edge walnut table by Jupiter runs from $8,000 to $10,000, depending on the rarity and thickness of the wood. A 10-foot-long table costs at least $20,000.
“Some clients feel like they are investing in the story of their family, and are willing to pay two to three times more than they would at a conglomerate,” Jupiter said. “For many, my furniture is the most expensive home furnishing they’ve ever purchased, but they know it will be a part of their family for decades.”
Wrestling the Slabs of Wood
Adam Johnson left his job in real estate five years ago and started making custom furniture out of a workshop in Williamsburg. Now Withers & Grain has four employees who produce one-of-a-kind pieces for commercial and residential clients as far away as Israel and Dubai. Johnson said the demand for live edge has skyrocketed over the past year.
“There’s such a surge right now that I don’t know how long the demand will keep up,” he said. “I think what draws people to them is that they’re unique and they are one-of-a-kind and they are a more visual experience than a regular plank table.”
Like Jupiter, Johnson focuses on finding wood from ethical suppliers, like arborists or tree services who are chopping down dangerous or sick trees. His prices for a live edge table range from $4,500 to $14,000, depending on the species and whether the table is made from a single or multiple slabs. A single slab table is more expensive because large slabs are harder to find and more difficult to work with.
“It’s super physical,” Johnson said. “You’re wrestling these huge slabs of wood. It’s a hard process start to finish.”
Johnson recently moved his production space to Rhinebeck, N.Y., after he was priced out of Brooklyn. He maintains an office and showroom in Williamsburg.
From the Arborist to the Saw Mill
Roger Benton founded his custom furniture business in 2008, and started harvesting his own trees a year later. He started RE-CO Brooklyn in 2011 to combine his furniture and tree harvesting businesses from a lot in Williamsburg. The company recently moved across the Brooklyn border to Ridgewood, Queens.
RE-CO gets logs directly from local tree services, arborists and parks departments and trucks them to his saw mill in Ulster County, N.Y., where they are cut and air dried for one to three years and then put into a kiln. The slabs then return to New York City, where Benton sells them to other furniture makers or uses them for his own pieces, which are mostly live edge.
“We’ve been doing predominantly live edge stuff for a long time and it’s always been pretty popular,” Benton said. “Live edge has really been blowing up. Most people call us and already know that they want a live edge dining table.”
Customers can visit RE-CO BKLYN and pick out a slab for a table. The price for a 10-foot-long live edge walnut table top starts at $4,800, plus about $1,000 for a metal base. Tables have a six-week lead time.
For a faster and cheaper alternative, national retailers like Wayfair, West Elm and Restoration Hardware have also started to carry their own versions of live edge tables, with prices starting around $1,000. The mass-produced tables are mostly made from multiple slabs and the edges are cut to simulate live edges.
Johnson, of Withers & Grain, worries that the sudden glut of live edge tables in chain stores signals the beginning of the end of their popularity.
“This will stick around but things get saturated,” he said. “There’s such a surge right now that I don’t know how long the demand will keep up.”
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