Furniture rises from the (Bicentennial) ash
(left to right) John Wnek, village forester John Kemppainen and Sawyer Wade Ellis move the top to the table for the conference room, which was made from Wilmette's oldest and largest tree, the Bicentennial Ash on December 10, 2012. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 14, 2013 6:48AM
WILMETTE — A deep brown scar slashes through the coffee table’s top, adding an unexpected emphasis to its sand and butter-hued grain.
It draws the eye, hints at something unusual about the table that goes far beyond its clean mortise and tenon lines.
In fact the table that now sits on the second floor of Wilmette Village Hall has a remarkable provenance, as do the chairs that surround it, the lobby benches one floor down, and the broad conference table in a first floor meeting room.
Seventeen months ago, each piece was a part of Wilmette’s 265-year-old Bicentennial Ash Tree. On Monday, village officials celebrated the tree’s new life as furnishings.
“We’ve brought a piece of Wilmette history back to Village Hall,” Village President Chris Canning said of the collection created by West Chicago sawyer Wade Ellis. “It’s a second life for the Bicentennial Ash.”
Before a windstorm toppled it across a Gillson Park parkway in July of 2011, the ash had grown for more than two centuries. It towered almost 70 feet high and predated most urban and wild ashes, since most of them are no more than a few decades old.
Despite its 1746 estimated birth date, it might have become firewood and mulch somewhere else, remembered only with regret and fading photographs, but Wilmette officials refused to let that happen.
Canning was already a champion of reclaiming urban wood, having mounted a successful 2008 campaign to turn a downed ash tree from his backyard into dozens of baseball bats. Village officials had also turned some of the 2,000 ash trees killed since 2006 by Emerald Ash Borer infestation into public works department counter tops.
So why not do something even more spectacular with the remains of this spectacular tree, Canning and village forestry staff asked each other. They looked around for someone to help them do it, and found Ellis, who owns Ellis Customer Sawing and Woodworking.
He collected huge chunks of the Bicentennial Ash last December, air and kiln-dried more than 700 board feet of it for several months before deciding how to turn it into furniture. The conference table was an unexpected extra, which he donated after realizing he had enough wood to build it; he also plans to deliver a window seat to Wilmette in the near future.
For the past decade, Ellis has turned the kind of wood disdained by commercial mills and woodworkers into furniture, art and other objects. He saw the promise in the bright lengths of ash.
For instance, the scar in the wood that comprises the coffee table – Wilmette Forester Kevin Sorby identified it as bark inclusion, marking where two limbs began to branch apart – would automatically have disqualified it as furniture material. Ellis saw it differently.
“Those knots and defects … to me they’re character marks, beauty marks,” he said Monday.
Edith Makra agreed. Makra, director of environmental initiatives for the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and a member of the Illinois Emerald Ash Borer wood utilization team, attended Monday’s ceremony.
“Trees die, but this project means that a very historic tree is going to live on in a village that has stood at the forefront of caring for trees,” she said. “And that’s a remarkable thing.”