RISD’s Witness Tree Project

Back in 2015, we were contacted by the NYC Parks Department about an 89″ diameter European Elm tree that had died and needed to be removed.  The 140 year old tree was an icon of Prospect Park, whose planting marked the Park’s inception back in the 1870’s. You can read about how we transported and milled it in our Prospect Park Elm tree post.

The impetus for our involvement with the removal was the Rhode Island School of Design’s Witness Tree Project.  In Fall 2009, the project was conceived of RISD’s Furniture Design, History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences departments. The school developed a new collaborative model for teaching and learning via a new set of studio and liberal arts courses aimed at working with and studying fallen, historic trees in the northeastern United States. The study focuses on the history the tree has “witnessed” over its lifespan.

Boards from the Elm Tree.

We agreed to mill and dry 1,000 board feet of 6/4 lumber for the students to unleash their creativity on. Once we cut into the first log, we discovered one of the tree’s many secrets; that the wood inside looked like a Van Gogh painting. The higher the pile of boards grew, the lower our jaws dropped. This was special material, in so many ways.

Dale Broholm, RISD furniture professor and co-founder of the project, was our contact during the process.  He would be the one to pick up the bounty, bring it back to the students and guide them on their journey into American history and tactical woodworking.

The timeline for producing finished material for this project was tight. While we were air drying slabs we cut from other parts of the tree for 3+ years, we had to put the boards for RISD into our kiln almost immediately.  A wood kiln is a chamber that is heated to bring the moisture inside the wood to its surface.

Wavy Elm boards from accelerated drying.

Fans move air over those surfaces to wick the moisture into the air.  Then a dehumidifier is used to take that moisture out of the air, condense it back into water and drain it outside of the chamber.  This process allows for precise control over drying speed.  The best quality wood comes from air drying for years prior to kiln drying. Some species hold up better than others during the drying process.  Unfortunately, Elm is one of those species that has a tendency to cup and twist during the drying process, especially at accelerated rates. So we all knew the risks of drying this way, but it was worth the risk. Fast forward 12 weeks in the kiln and we got boards that quite honestly resemble the ocean with a 10 knot breeze more than they do furniture worthy lumber.  This loss knocked the wind from our sails but all was not lost. We still have around 10,000 board feet of absolutely stunning slabs air drying and we are taking our sweet time with those.

Professor Broholm and his class certainly know how to turns lemons into lemonade because they created some beautiful, innovative pieces from the wonky Elm. Many of the works actually use the waviness as a design element. They created everything from furniture with old world joinery to carved, shaped and turned pieces. While I do not claim to know a terrible amount about American history, I am sure the rest of what you see below was influenced by what that magnificent Elm “witnessed”.