Driftwood has long been used as a natural material in home décor. There is something about the rough, weathered wood that appeals not only to those who love the beach, but to anyone who loves the outdoors or of the natural beauty of wood in general. With driftwood, we get an inside look at the natural recycling process of taking what was once a piece of a living tree, that is being broken down into nutrients for another generation of plant life. Yet, when we bring that driftwood into our homes, we stop that natural process and preserve it mid-step, where we can enjoy the beauty of what it has done to the wood.
True driftwood washes up on shore from the ocean; but with so few of us living close to the ocean, it can be hard to come up with true driftwood. We can find essentially the same thing along the shores of lakes and rivers, assuming we live close enough to uninhabited parts of those to find it. The other option is to make our own driftwood, using whatever deadfalls we can find.
What makes driftwood unique is that it is weathered and decayed wood. That’s not something that is easy to simulate, although we will talk about ways of doing just that. The decay follows the grain patterns in the wood, generally eating away the softer parts of the wood and leaving the harder fibers. Through this process the natural grain of the wood is amplified, even though the color is muted. At the same time, the broken ends, softened by decay and wear, are left natural, keeping the look that nature has given that unique piece of wood.
Using Driftwood as Decor
On the most basic level, individual pieces of driftwood can be used as décor, placing them in the bottom of a fish tank or setting them on a bookshelf. While this works well with some of the more attractive and interesting pieces of driftwood, it doesn’t fit everyone’s home décor.
But even homes which are not done in a beachfront theme can benefit from pieces of furniture made out of driftwood. Pieces of driftwood, assembled together to make furniture pieces; bring nature into the home in a very beautiful way. Such pieces are usually accent pieces, rather than having the whole room finished in driftwood.
I have seen sofas, table bases, chairs and lamps and even chandeliers made out of driftwood. For some reason, my parents really liked driftwood décor when I was growing up and our coffee table had a driftwood base and there was a rather elaborate driftwood lamp on one of the end tables.
Making Things Out of Driftwood
Making things out of driftwood is considerably different than any other sort of woodworking. Most woodworking projects require cutting wood to fit together in ways that meet the design we have in mind. With driftwood, the idea is to use the wood in its natural state, in such a way so as to build the project without cutting and especially without leaving any cut edges exposed. Any cut edges should be hidden, such as against the floor or up against a tabletop.
This means having pieces of driftwood that are the exact size needed for the project. That can be difficult to accomplish, but a bit of flexibility in the design and a large pile of driftwood pieces to pick from make it possible. It is always necessary to have considerably more driftwood than is needed, so that the right pieces can be picked from the pile.
While a general design is always needed for any project, the idea with driftwood is to have an overall design and allow the driftwood to dictate the details. If driftwood is being used as spindles for the back of a sofa, then one side of the sofa might have 10 spindles, while the other side only has 8. That’s better than okay, as nature does not do things in perfect symmetry. In such a case, the smaller number of spindles will probably be wider, making it so that roughly the same mass of wood is on both sides of the back.
Driftwood furniture is always built starting with larger pieces and then using smaller pieces to fill in. The larger pieces are needed for the base and to give the project structural strength that smaller pieces can’t provide. The smaller pieces work as filler, although they are not necessarily installed evenly. Driftwood is not symmetrical, nor even, so it is against the nature of what it is to try and force it to be perfectly even.
The general style of driftwood furniture is intended to look like a pile of driftwood that has washed up on shore and was just picked up intact and brought into the home. That’s not what it is; but the idea is to try and capture that look. By and large, the projects which accomplish this the best are ones in which the individual pieces of driftwood are arranged in generally the same direction, as the beating of the waves would cause on the seashore.
Glass tops are common for drifttables, especially coffee tables and end tables. I will caution you here though, as a glass coffee table is dangerous. My godmother tripped over a toy in our living room and fell through the glass coffee table top of our driftwood coffee table, with a piece of the glass piercing her femoral artery. She almost bled out before the ambulance could get there. If you can, use Lexan instead of glass, as it is much less likely to break and is therefore considerably safer.
Another style that is coming into play is driftwood encased in epoxy, much like river tabletops. However, in this case, much more epoxy is used and it is generally left clear. This provides what looks like a window into a frozen piece of the ocean or a pond, showing the driftwood as it is in the water, before washing up on shore.
Connecting Driftwood Together
Connecting driftwood pieces together to make a piece of furniture is different from connecting wood together for other projects. Pieces can’t usually be glued together, because they don’t meet up neatly like cut pieces do. If any glue is used at all, it should be epoxy, not PVA, as epoxy’s high solids content makes for good gap filling properties. PVA adhesives do not have that.
Epoxy putty can also be used for connecting pieces of driftwood together; but if it is used, the putty should be kept to areas where it is not visible. I have seen pieces where epoxy putty was used to fill in between pieces, with the woodworker trying to make the putty appear as a continuation of one of the pieces of driftwood. It never works, even if the color matches perfectly, because there is no wood grain in the putty and it is all but impossible to make a realistic wood grain effect in it.
Individual pieces of driftwood are best connected together with wood screw and dowels. The key to connecting pieces of driftwood together for furniture or other projects is to do everything from a hidden side, either from underneath or in the case of pieces where it is possible, from the back. This usually requires working on table bases and other pieces of furniture upside-down, keeping in mind all the time that the finished piece will be flipped over when it is done.
Dowels work extremely well for connecting pieces of driftwood, but not necessarily the short 2” dowel pins that are typically used for connecting pieces together. These projects are much more likely to require long pieces of dowel rod, which might end up going through three or more pieces of driftwood. Installing such pieces requires long drill bits (12” “aircraft” drill bits) and some care in drilling the holes.
Driftwood can’t be easily clamped together like cut wood, because there are no straight, parallel edges for the clamps to push against. Most of the time the only clamping that is possible is holding the piece with one hand; while drilling, screwing and doweling it together.
By and large, driftwood should be left natural. Applying finishes can ruin the natural patina of the wood, as well as making it look artificial. If any finish is applied, it should be a thin coating of a matte varnish. Sand the dried finish with 0000 steel wool to remove any gloss from the surface, as well as sawdust that gets caught in it.
Beeswax is an excellent sealant for driftwood. Melt one ounce of beeswax in a double boiler and mix it together with ¾ cup of mineral oil. Pour into a jar and allow to cool before using. It can be applied with a rag.
Making Driftwood to Work With
The big question for many people is where to come up with the driftwood to work with. Unless one lives close to the ocean, it seems that the only source for driftwood is to buy it, perhaps on eBay. But the term “driftwood” doesn’t just apply to wood that is washed up from the ocean. Rather, it applies to wood that looks like what has washed up from the ocean. This opens up other opportunities to find and even make driftwood.
To start with, as I mentioned earlier, driftwood can be found in lakes, ponds, streams and rivers. Tree branches and sticks that fall into the water often start decaying right away and will gradually gain more and more of the driftwood look. Pieces that can be picked up along the shore can be worked with, making them look even more aged.
Likewise, pieces of deadfall found on the forest floor can be used for driftwood or even pieces of branches that break off of trees in the backyard. The key is that it is dead wood, which has broken off naturally. That will give it an appearance of legitimacy that can’t be duplicated by other means.
The first thing that should be done to any of this wood is to remove any remaining bark, whittling it with a knife or chisel. At the same time, if there is wood that is in the process of decaying, it should also be removed, leaving only solid wood. A wire brush wheel in a handheld drill or even in a drill press can be extremely useful for cleaning off decaying wood and bark, as well as for bringing out the grain by removing the softer parts of the wood grain and leaving the harder parts standing out. While working on the wood, it is a good idea to sand any sharp edges, so that the finished pieces will not have any spots where children can get scratches, scrapes and splinters off of the finished furniture.
There are several different ways of treating the wood to give it an aged appearance, if it doesn’t already look aged enough. One is to put a couple of cups of bleach in water, in a children’s swimming pool and soak the wood in it for two weeks or so. This will help to whiten the wood, as well as killing any fungi or bacteria contained within it.
An alternative to bleach is to use salt in the water. A high enough concentration of salt is needed to kill the fungi and bacteria. Two handfuls of salt in a plastic storage bin or four handfuls in a children’s swimming pool should do. If the water turns brown, dump it out and replace it.
As part of this process, take some time to scrub the entire surface of the wood with either a stiff nylon brush or a wire brush, after it has had time to soak. This scrubbing is primarily to remove dirt, algae, moss and other debris, as well as any decayed areas that were not found before. If this process makes the water dirty, dump it out and replace it with more water and bleach.
Once the driftwood has had adequate time to soak in the water, remove it and set it in the sun for several days to dry. Being porous, the wood will have absorbed a lot of water. So the longer it is left to dry, the better. However, it is not necessary to dry it as long as drying freshly cut wood, as it won’t have the same moisture content, nor be assembled by the same means. Sun drying helps to bleach the wood, making it look more like authentic driftwood, regardless of where it originally came from.