I like big trees, and I like American Elms. When we stopped by Jaycee Park in St. Charles, MO, I found both all rolled into one. We went to that particular park so Mira, my daughter, could check out the newly renovated playground (which is very nice by the way). Mira played while Chris and I held down a bench and talked, but I couldn’t stop looking at the tree on the top of the hill. I kept wondering if it was time to go yet, so I could get a closer look and take a few photos.
When it was time to go, the girls humored me and let me take pictures of the American Elm tree. I asked them to stand in the photos for scale and they actually did it. Most shocking was Mira, who seemed to not totally hate the experience. She was even a touch cocky, putting her leg up on a straw bale, while Chris was only the slightest bit annoyed (she gets forced to look at a lot of trees).
As I said, this tree is large, which is a noteworthy feat for a tree that usually succumbs to Dutch Elm disease at a much younger age. It shows no sign of the disease (knock on my head) and seems to be in great health. You can tell from the close-up photo of the base that it gets a lot of visitors who admire it as much as I do.
Besides having a large base, the crown is enormous. Click on one of the photos to get close-up and try counting the branches. There must be at least a billion of them up there (give or take a few). They spread out like a fan in all directions and leave very little open air. I am sure that in the summer it just looks like a big bush.
The way the branches spread from the main trunk is the best way to identify American Elms, especially without the leaves. The tree usually has a vase or fan shape to it, where a short to medium length and wide base separates from one area into many branches with no clear lead. The profile of the tree sometimes shows the lower branches with an upward turn at the ends, which makes the vase shape even more evident. This American Elm is so old that it has added some extra lower branches which are not strongly turned up. Still, even from a great distance, you can tell it is an American Elm.
I know a lot of you are wondering how old this tree is, and I can tell you that I don’t know (I am not afraid to admit it). My best guess would be about 150 years old based on the other trees I have milled. Let’s just say it is between 100 and 200 to be safe and definitely much older than me.
After I took the photos above, I thought it would be a good idea to post photos of other American Elms to show the consistency of the shape from tree to tree. Some of them have a long main trunk before the branches split off and some have almost no main trunk. One even has two trunks, but still shows the vase shape overall. Notice that none of them are near the size of the American Elm at Jaycee Park.
I was meeting with a customer last week and we were going over the details of the job and discussing the wood that I was going to use for their bookshelves – cherry, as you might have guessed. I was going on about how much I like cherry and was making sure to plug the fact that I mill my own trees. During our discussion, which was mostly me talking and him nodding, he asked,”Well, how big do cherry trees get?” I knew then that he was wondering what I was wondering when I started cutting trees. How do you get big boards from such little orchard trees? I explained to him that it wasn’t the type of cherry tree he was picturing. It was an American Black Cherry, which grows in the forest, mixed with other hardwoods. His next question was, “But, it doesn’t have cherries does it?” As a matter of fact it does. They aren’t big and they are in a cluster that looks like grapes, but they are fruit that birds love to eat, and they are definitely cherries. Then I thought and quickly asked, “Are you ready to be shocked? I bet that you have one right here in your yard and don’t even know it.” I wasn’t going too far out on a limb because I had just driven down a long gravel drive with upland hardwoods to get to his house. I hadn’t specifically spotted a cherry tree, but I could smell them (not literally).
As we talked more, our discussion went back and forth from the piece of furniture that I am going to make to the wood that I am going to use, and we talked more about how big the cherry trees get. I explained that they get big like any hardwood lumber tree, but are on the smaller end of the scale overall. An average log size in this area is about 14″-15″ in diameter, inside the bark, on the skinny end. However, it isn’t uncommon for them to be larger. The main problem with larger and older logs is that they tend to have punky/rotten areas in the center of the log, so many bigger logs don’t get milled. For fun (as always) and to prove that they get bigger than orchard trees, I thought I would share a few photos of my larger finds. Notice that we are not phased at all by the size of the larger logs. It’s routine for us.
By the way, as I left his property, I saw a couple of small cherry trees and I am sure that there are more.
I cut elm logs whenever I can – too much probably, because the market for elm isn’t that great. It isn’t because elm is terrible, it’s because most people have never used elm, and most people have never used elm because it isn’t readily available.
Well, I am here to change that with my not-so-new (drum roll please) Elm Revolution. This movement started after I used elm for the first time about 15 years ago and, to be frank, hasn’t quite taken over the world. Alright, alright, it hasn’t gotten much further than me and a few of my friends, and I don’t know why. I think elm deserves a place in the top ten of hardwoods for everyone, with Siberian Elm in the top five for me. My top ten goes something like this:
- Quartersawn white Oak
- Siberian Elm
- Soft Maple (with character)
- Eastern White Pine
- Flatsawn White Oak
- American Elm
- Quartersawn Sycamore (I rarely use flatsawn because it is too unstable)
- Red Oak
Note: My choices are limited to species available locally in St. Louis, MO. However, almost every domestic hardwood grows in this area.
The order of the species will fluctuate depending on the job, but both the elms are always in my top ten. If the job will be made completely from solid wood and I have elm available, I almost always present it to the customer as a choice.
Of the elms, the two that lead my revolution are Siberian Elm and American Elm. I like them both and choose between them and other species depending on a few variables. The first is the color of the wood, specifically the color of the final piece. Both elms take stain easily and consistently, very similar to oak, which makes medium to darker colors easily achievable. However, when I am looking for a white wood, the elms aren’t the ticket. Siberian Elm is mostly heartwood, which is a medium brown, and American Elm is usually stained in color (from standing dead after succumbing to Dutch Elm disease).
The second variable is the grain pattern and how pronounced it is. Siberian Elm has a strong grain pattern, especially when stained. It stands out a lot and is not the wood to use if subtlety is desired. However, if you are looking for a showy wood, the elm’s are for you. Siberian Elm is the standout of the two, and commonly has small knots that can range from just a couple per board, to a birds-eye look, and even heavily burled. It is not uncommon for only one in ten logs of Siberian Elm to have straight grain, with the rest having varying degrees of funkiness. American Elm is more consistently straight-grained, refined, and stains with less contrast. The beauty of American Elm comes from the grain itself and not from the growths within it. The interlocked grain of the elms causes a little zig-zaggy pattern between each growth ring that looks like a feather and is best seen in flatsawn boards. The figure has an iridescent quality about it and really pops with a dye stain.
A big issue, and the third variable, is stability. Elms do not dry flat and are more unstable than other woods in service. When I pull boards from the kiln it is easy to tell when I have gotten to the elms. Siberian Elm will dry with cup, bow, twist, and crook, as well as a lot of waves, especially in lower-grade boards like those in the photo to the right. American Elm is just as cantankerous, but doesn’t usually have the waves. It goes strong towards cup and twist. The amazing thing is that after drying and straightening the boards on the jointer, they stay relatively flat. Notice, I say relatively, because they can still move a little if they are not quartersawn (everything is more stable if it is quartersawn). Because of this potential for movement, I don’t use elm where movement may cause something to get out of alignment and stand out. For example, I would use elm on cabinets with larger gaps between the doors, but not on large cabinet doors where I was trying to maintain perfect reveals – it is just asking for trouble.
Elm ranks low on the durability scale, which is the fourth variable to consider. Because of this, I only use elms indoors. In the log form it rots pretty quickly and starts to have issues after only one season outside. Both elms can be used for anything inside, including flooring. American Elm is harder than Siberian Elm, which I compare to walnut, but I have done floors with both, and they seem to stand up fine.
Availability may be the biggest hurdle to overcome after you decide to give elm a try. Elm is not readily available in either American or Siberian. American Elm is scarce because it is attacked and killed by Dutch Elm Disease, which has wiped most of them out. They are still out there and get to good size, but are usually only available after they are dead. If they are alive, most people prefer to leave them standing because they have a nice shape. Siberian Elm was brought in as a Dutch Elm Disease-resistant tree and only grows in areas where it was planted (though it does reproduce prolificly and spread from where it was planted). Because of this Siberian Elm mostly grows where sawmills aren’t, which means it doesn’t get cut very often.
The main difference when working with elm compared to other woods, is the interlocking grain mentioned earlier, which kicks hand planes and several other hand tools out of the equation. Other than that, they work like most any other hardwoods.
If you get a chance to use an elm, especially Siberian Elm, give it a shot and help move this revolution thing forward. I know a lot of people who have tried them and liked them. As a matter of fact, two of my friends have just introduced furniture lines with Siberian Elm as a choice. Long Live Elm!