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A River Runs Through It

Updated: May 4, 2023

It started as a very special gift idea. A friend's best friend died of cancer. Since her husband had previously passed away, there as no one to take care of her two daughters. My friend and her husband enthusiastically agreed to become the guardians of the two girls (one in high school and one in college). They opened their home and their hearts to the girls despite having 3 children of their own. My sister-in-law had the great idea to build a commemorative bench for the family as a way to honor their friend/mom. I volunteered for the task and I had a particular type of bench in mind.

I was intent on building an epoxy river bench. I had never built one, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try. I had already done a lot of research, mostly on the YouTube channel of Cam at Blacktail Studio. Cam has an easygoing style and doesn't come off as arrogant, but has every right to be. His creations are drop-dead gorgeous!

Now this project was big and had a lot of steps I had to learn on the fly, but it should have taken about 5 months not 1 year. However, I made no progress for 8 months due to an unexpected injury. Here's the steps with dates and photos...

Step 1: Pick out slab (March 30, 2022)

Got this slab from Beam and Board reclaimed lumber in Green Bay. This is a very cool store that Ryan Smith of Headliner Homes recommended. The slab had some nice curves that worked well in forming the river.

Step 2: Cut the slab and build a form (April 18, 2022)

A single slice down the middle of the slab and swapping the sides, leaves you with a nice riverbed. I built a form out a white melamine. The side boards were screwed in from the bottom, and the joints were all sealed with silicon caulk.

Step 3: Calculating how much epoxy

This is a critical step and gets very involved. You have to not only calculate the amount the river will take, but also underneath the slab and all around the perimeter. There is a complete video on how to do the calculation here. This table took something like 7 gallons of epoxy.

Step 4: Prepping for the pour (May 15, 2022)

There are quite a few steps to get ready to pour. You have to paint the wood with a coating of epoxy before you can start. Also, the clamps are there to make sure the wood doesn't float on the liquid and it has to be perfectly level. The room temperature has to be around 70 degrees. This means heating the basement I was working in. Oh, and it has to stay 70 degrees while it cures... 3 days.

Step 5: Mixing the epoxy (May 15, 2022)

Mixing the epoxy and blending in metallic flake was the fun part. The product is called Liquid Glass and it's a "deep pour" epoxy meaning you can pour it up to 3" deep and it will still cure. Many type of epoxy need to be poured in layers, letting each cure before pooring the next.

Step 6: Pouring the epoxy (May 15, 2022)

Then after pouring, it required a heat gun to pop all the bubbles.

Step 7: Demolding (May 18, 2022)

The de-molding process was simple. I forgot to spray mold release on the form, but it came off without any issue. The melamine is so smooth that there is nothing the epoxy can bond too.

Step 8a: Plane the slab (June 4, 2022)

This is where I had to go off script a bit. Cam at Blacktail Studio has access to a large industrial planer, which is ideal. I called around, but Appleton Planing refused to take a river table/bench because they said "it dulls the knives". I would think that everything dulls the knives, but apparently epoxy does it quicker. The next best thing would be a CNC router, but mine is much too small. So I choose the 3rd option, which is a "router sled". I used the same board I had used as a mold and built a router sled out of plywood. I took it outside because this method makes a huge mess. This kinda worked, but the board it was on flexed too much and the top surface was not even.

Step 8b: Plane the slab again (June 29, 2022)

I bought a solid core door and two pieces of very straight plastic molding. The plywood sled I had built held the router too high above the slab, so I had to go with an alternate design that was thinner. This worked, but there was a problem...

The router bit caused chips in the epoxy on nearly every pass. I tried researching this problem, but could find nothing. This is where the project ground to a halt for 8 months because (a) I didn't know how to fix the chips and (b) I broke my neck (or to be more accurate, someone broke it for me... long story.)

Step 9: Final sanding a leg installation (March 11, 2023)

I finally got back to the project and decide I would just sand the crap out of it and see if I could make the chip marks go away. That worked! I installed the legs using threaded inserts and furniture bolts. I've had quite a few questions about the legs. I got them from a company called Flowyline.

Step 10: Finishing (March 12, 2023)

I applied a hard wax finish designed for hardwood floors called Rubio Monocoat. It gave it rich color and a matte finish that I love.

Step 11: Delivery (March 20, 2023)

The family loved it! They weren't expecting it, so they did know how late the project was. Here are some more photos of the finished product.

I was very happy with the results, despite the inordinate time it took. I'm excited to try again, but I have to find way to plane a large wide surface before I do. If you have any suggestions, please leave them as a comment.

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May 04, 2023
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