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!