A Brief History of Live Edge Tables

A Brief History of Live Edge Tables - Alabama Sawyer

February 19, 2022

Some of those craft videos you see on social media are so satisfying to watch, aren’t they? This might be one of the reasons live edge tables and furniture have become so popular as of late. 

While it is definitely satisfying to watch sped-up people pour chemicals (resin) all over a beautiful slab of a tree, there’s also something missing from the picture. 

The process of creating live edge furniture, tables and floating shelves goes very, very deep as we are going to explain. This article is going to be as much of a journey into carpentry as a practice as it is a philosophy. 

The practices that led to the creation of this style actually go back over a thousand years.

At the heart of this practice, is a certain attitude about our relationship with the material. 

When we say we work with lumber, we really mean it; We work with lumber. We collaborate with it, take suggestions from it - even orders. No bark puns, please - but seriously:

Understanding this sophisticated style requires a certain willingness to compromise with mother nature. This philosophy can actually be traced back to Japanese carpentry - which is unique and impressive for numerous reasons. So, let’s start there.

Japanese Joints are Ingenious 

Japanese carpentry and joinery are world-renowned versions of woodworking. One major and defining characteristic of this millennia-old practice is that it uses no steel fasteners to join pieces of wood.  This fact alone is not actually unique to carpentry worldwide, but what makes Japanese carpentry special, is the level to which they take the craft. 

This and the afore-mentioned mindset of working with mother nature - rather than attempting to employ her has led to some of the longest-lasting wooden structures on the planet. Japanese carpentry also likes to integrate the natural curve of lumber and precision tools and chisels which operate differently than their western counterparts to create aesthetically marvelous and architecturally sound structures. 

Butterfly joints that mallet into place without a sliver of air to separate them are the kind of marvels that make Japanese practice of carpentry among, if not the most sophisticated style on the planet. The idea is not that the lumber is dead - but that it is given a second life. It is still alive, and it still speaks.

In an internment camp during the second world war, the father of live edge met this style - an American man by the name of George Nakashima. This brings us to our next chapter. 

The Birth of Live Edge Furniture

An internment camp in the 1940s US, while generally considered “humane”, (to an outrageously low standard) was sparsely equipped with amenities at all. Japanese-American George Nakashima was interned at such a camp in Idaho. 

In the sparse conditions, the citizen and architect met with a Japanese carpenter named Gentaro Hikogawa. Now, here are two incredibly skilled men with some time on their hands, a problem of discomfort (among other things) and some very limited materials - offcuts from the sawmill and the like. 

But they didn’t just flip over a bucket because they wanted to have a seat - they worked the wood with pride. 

Presumably, the philosophies that Mr. Hikogawa would have brought with him may have influenced this or it could have been the architectural discipline that Nakashima brought to the table. These men seem to have not known what ‘half-baked’ even meant.

They improvised - used the natural flaws and appearances of materials at hand and created pieces of furniture to improve their quality of life. This was the footwork that would become the foundation of the live edge style which has become so popular today. 

It’s Not Creation, It’s Adaptation

That is what some people seem to have a little bit of trouble getting their heads around when it comes to live edge woodwork. In standard westernized construction and design - things are often first laid out on a piece of paper and then revised 1-1000 or so times to be conservative.

They are then built out of standardized materials into familiar shapes also known as boxes, triangles and sometimes, even cylinders. 

Would-be live edge furniture procurers sometimes come in with this order of operations in mind - expecting to order an 8’ slab and not understanding the ramifications of such a request. The truth is, this is exactly backwards from how live edge woodworking is done. You don’t write the plans and get the materials, you procure the materials, and plan around them.  

When it comes to procuring slabs for live edge tables - there are no standardized tree sizes. You mill what you get, and while we can approximate and work in the slab a great deal, expecting to order one to the 1/8th of an inch isn’t quite realistic. That is - kind of the point.

Live edge tables and woodworking practices lie in the common area between our desire to control nature and integrate it. Bark, for example - so often it is a desire of the client to leave the bark on. 

Depending on when it was cut, it may be possible and from a design perspective, it sure is sharp! The fact is that it may still come off someday - but that is life. It isn’t perfect, it is deeply flawed and still, deeply beautiful. Lumber is a commodity that must be treated with respect, and the cost of utilizing such an important resource to our world must reflect that. 

Not Just Beautiful Furniture: A Beautiful Process

There is a lot more that goes into a live edge table than initially meets the eye in a 30 second Tik Tok video, and at Alabama Sawyer we both know and respect that. Live edge furniture is the culmination of carpentry working together with nature to give wood a second life while we marvel at its splendor. 

That is the depth of the carpenter’s connection to the world around them.