We just realized it’s July 30th. As in, almost August. Which means that summer’s more than half over. Boo! Hiss!! We thought we’d be renovating our kitchen by now, but we’ve had a pretty major setback in the dining room: we have to plaster the walls ourselves. Plastering is the bane of our existence. It’s boring and it takes us way too long to do it. But since our plasterer (who did a fabulous job upstairs) completely blew us off, we’re stuck doing it. Not easy when this is going on outside:
That’s why there haven’t been a ton of updates lately. We would show you a million pictures of ourselves plastering, but they all kinda look like this one:
Also, we’re frowning pretty much the entire time we plaster.
This weekend, we decided to wrap up a way-more-fun-than-plastering project. We finished our tree stump side tables.
This is the kind of project that we live for. You take something that’s essentially garbage and you turn it into something beautiful and functional. We also love that it’s super easy to make, doesn’t cost much and doesn’t require a ton of special tools. Ready for the step-by-step? Us too. Lets go.
First things first: you’ll need a tree stump. We found a pile of them by the side of some railroad tracks near our house. We picked out the two with the most interesting shapes, threw them in the back of our car and brought them home. Here’s what they looked like way back in January:
Next, you’ll have to dry the stumps out completely. This is arguably the hardest step because it requires a lot of patience. We put our stumps in our garage’s uninsulated attic for a few months. It’s 100+ degrees up there every single day, so it basically acts like a kiln and thoroughly dries out the stumps. If you don’t have access to an attic or a kiln, you can leave the stumps in a dry spot for a few months. Elevate the stumps on a couple of shims so air can circulate underneath. This will keep mold from growing on the underside.
How do you know when the stumps are dry? The bark will fall off really easily. If you can grab a hunk and easily rip it off, they’re ready. Which brings us to the next step: remove the bark from the stump.
We used a chisel and a prybar to remove the stumps in big chunks. You have to be careful not to damage the wood underneath the bark. If the stump is truly dry enough, it won’t be a problem. But if you find yourself having to jam or shove the prybar between the bark and the stump, walk away for a few days.
With the bark completely removed, we’re ready to level the table top. To do this, we need to get the stumps on a level surface. We swept all the dust off of a section of the garage floor and then checked to see if it was level. First we check it in one direction:
Then we checked it in the other direction:
And we were happy to find that it was perfectly level:
Maybe happy isn’t the right word. It looks more like he’s in pain.
Next, we need to figure out if our stump is level. To do that, we moved the stump to our level spot and then tested it:
Fail. Our stump was not level at all. So we have to plane our table top.
We used a planer and shaved off the side of the table that was too high.
If you don’t have a planer, you could use a belt sander…but it’s going to take you forever to level off your top. A planer gets the job done in minutes. This is how much sawdust we shaved off from just one table top in order to get it level:
Yeah. Don’t try this with a belt sander. You’ll go through so many belts that you’re better off buying a cheap planer instead.
Next, we have to remove the gouges that the planer left:
And that’s where a belt sander comes in handy:
We used 80-grit for this task.
It’s important to keep checking to make sure the top is level. Once the gouges are gone, we can flip the trunk on its side and start cleaning it up:
We used an orbital sander with 180-grit sandpaper. 180 is coarse enough to get any leftover bark off, but it’s fine enough not to completely strip the wood. Check it out:
We sanded only the bottom half in the picture above. The dust and grime are gone, but the neato bug trails and scars are still completely visible. A closer look post-sanding:
After sanding the trunks, we need to do clean up the cracks and crevices.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get a tree some funky knots and cracks and textures. We think these are the things that give a tree stump table character. Both of our stumps had spots where the bark grew in big lumps and knots:
We don’t want to remove the lumps and knots — we just want to remove the fibrous bark and dirt that’s built up on top of them. So we used a chisel and a rubber mallet to gently pry off anything that seemed loose. After that, we cleaned this area with 80-grit sandpaper. We didn’t use a sander. Instead, we used a sheet of sandpaper and followed the curves of the stump.
We also had some deep cracks on the top of one table:
We cleaned this out by shoving a folded-up piece of 180-grit sandpaper into the crack and then wiggling it around to loosen dirt up. Then we used our air compressor to blow the debris out. (If you don’t have an air compressor, you could use a can of compressed air.)
With everything cleaned up, we were ready to give our tables something to sit on.
We decided not to do legs on our stumps because we like how low they are. Instead, we purchased 2 packs of furniture glides from Lowe’s.
They’re little discs with a nail on one end and a felt pad on the other end. They’ll serve two purposes:
- They’ll keep our floors from getting scratched up.
- They’ll elevate the tables off the floor just enough so that air can circulate under them.
That last one is super important because even if you dry your table for a solid year, it’s still going to have some moisture in it. And moisture means mold if air isn’t circulating. We used a moisture meter to check our stumps (Bradley borrowed it from work) and even though they pretty much baked in our attic, they’re still not 100% dry. Lifting the tables up a little lets them air out.
We carefully flipped our tables over and hammered 4 glides to the underside of each table. Also, we flipped them so our freshly sanded tops were on a soft mat instead of the hard floor. Highly recommend that if you don’t want your top to get scratched up!
Now we’re ready to seal these suckers up.
We moved the stumps to a work table and flipped them over so they’re sitting right-side-up. Here’s how they look all clean and ready to finish:
We love the texture in the knotted crack that runs down one stump.
We were originally debating between bleaching the stumps and then staining them white or staining them a dark espresso. After we cleaned them up, we decided that we liked them raw. So we used a water-based polycrylic to seal them:
Here’s how they looked after one coat:
The whole thing got much darker.
We love how the streaks are much more visible. The different shades of brown pop. We let the trucks dry for 30 minutes (timing varies based on the brand, so read the package label!) and then sanded the whole thing with 320-grit sandpaper:
After the first coat of sealer, you might notice that little fibers of wood stand up all over the stump. Kind of like tiny raised hairs. Don’t panic! This is normal. Basically, the wood is dry when you start painting so everything feels super smooth. The dry wood soaks up the wet sealer and plumps up. Sanding with 320-grit will smooth everything back down. Just take your time and don’t rush through the sanding — it’s really important to get a smooth finish or else the table will look kinda shabby.
Here’s how you check to see if you’ve sanded enough. Run the palm of your hand softly across the surface of the table:
Feel any snags? Keep sanding. Feel like velvet? Awesome. That’s what you’re looking for here.
We sanded every exposed part of the stump (we didn’t bother with the bottom), then gave it a blast with the air compressor to get rid of any dust. After that we gave it another coat of polycrylic. Lather, rinse, repeat.
We gave each stump 4 coats of polycrylic and sanded with 320-grit between each coat. It sounds like a lot more work than it actually is. The first coat and first sand is always the hardest and most time-consuming. The other 3 coats are a piece of cake. And remember, you don’t sand after the last coat of polycrylic.
We loved the color of the stumps after the sealer dried:
But we hated how shiny it looked. If you looked carefully, you could see brush strokes in the light. The shininess combined with the brush strokes made our stump tables looks less high-end / modern and more crafty / country chic. But we have one last trick up our sleeve to get rid of the shine and make these tables look fabulous:
The final step is to go over all visible surfaces with grade 0000 steel wool.
Check out the sheen on the side of the table:
We rubbed the ball of steel wool up and down (with the grain) the stump using moderate pressure:
Way less shiny:
Here’s another view. We used steel wool in one corner of the table top to show how it removes the way-too-glossy sheen:
See how it’s blindingly glossy all over but then there’s one dull area? That’s what steel wool does. It takes the edge off. Here’s how the top looked after we steel wool’d the entire surface:
The sides looked a lot better, too:
Annnnd that’s it. They’re done! Now we just need to make a sofa* to sit in between them and our living room will be in good shape.
Let’s talk money. We spent just under $10 on this project. We already owned the polycrylic, the sandpaper and all the tools. The stumps were, of course, free. The only thing we purchased were the 2 packs of furniture glides. And, just in case you’re wondering, for $10 we could have purchased one IKEA Lack side table. Yup. We like our tables better. Viva DIY!
We’ll be back soon with a few more projects to share, including a super-easy shortcut for our DIY concrete window sills. Stay tuned!
* Yes, we’re going to make our own sofa. We have a look in mind and have started planning out the details. Exciting!