American Elm Slab Really Takes a Shine

A few years ago I cut a huge American Elm log into slabs and quickly sold all of them except one piece that ended up being short after hitting a few nails. The nails dulled the sawmill too much to finish the cut, so I just cut the slab off at about five feet long and salvaged what I could. All of the other slabs where long enough to make large tables while this one struggled to find a home, until I got a request for a kitchen peninsula top.

I flattened the slab on the Lucas mill and sanded it by hand since it was too wide to fit through the wide belt sander. It wasn’t until I sprayed the first coat of finish on it that I realized how nice it was and was reminded why I like American elm so much.

The slab had a great shape with a beautiful crack down the middle and the edges had tons of character too with ridges and bumps down the entire length. But, what really made it stand out and grab your attention was the figure of the wood and its chatoyance, or the way the light bounces off of the surface. The finish has great depth and changes in brightness as you walk around the piece. It reminds me of satin sheets with ridges that reflect ribbons of light. It is really something that you need to see in person.

Here are some before and after photos of the slab.

American elm rough slab

American elm slab edge

American elm trimming

American elm finished

American elm finished detail

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

8 responses to “American Elm Slab Really Takes a Shine”

  1. Edd says :

    I just purchased a large slab of Walnut to make a desk. It is natural edge and has been kiln dried. My question is how to finish it. I don’t want to “fill” the cracks or knot holes but rather finish over them so they stand out. I want to finish the natural edge without removing the bark. So I guess what I’m asking is what is the best product and method to get a nice firm finish so I can use it for a desk without worrying about marring it with a pen or bumping the bark and having it fall off? You said something about spraying in this article. Can you give me some insights? Treat me like a beginner and be as descriptive as possible. Thank you!!!

    • wunderwoods says :

      First, we normally take the bark off because it tends to fall off on its own. Plus, it is usually banged up from handling and not all there. If it is all there and in tact you can try to keep it, but it will knock off easily, especially walnut. Something with a hard bark, like hickory will have a much better chance. Everyone I personally know takes off the walnut bark (David Stine and Martin Goebel, for example).
      For the finish, many topcoats will work. Polyurethane for floors is a fine choice and can be applied easily. Waterlox works well too and is easy to apply. Both of these take a long time to completely dry, which is why I use Klearvar, a very durable two-part conversion varnish that needs to be sprayed. It goes on nicely and dries quickly. Remember that all wood finishes are just basically a coating of plastic and none are super hard or they would be too brittle and crack when the wood moves.
      For finishing, I would sand the entire top flat and smooth to 150 grit. Apply your fist coat of finish and sand with 320 grit. Apply your next coat and sand again with 320. Reapply coats to desired or prescribed level of finish and call it a day. I usually hand sand the live edges after the bark is removed, also with 150 grit.
      If you have any more questions feel free to ask. I will be glad to help.

  2. Kate says :

    Hi Scott,
    I love the chotoyance of your elm piece; I want the same effect. I just recieved a new 4″ thick, 18″ to 24″ wide slab of elm for my breakfast bar. I will still install the green wood but how long before I can finish it like yours? How do I tell if its dry enough?
    Thank you, Kate

    • wunderwoods says :

      Rule of thumb is an inch of thickness per year drying time. Since your piece will be inside that time will dramatically decrease. I would let it sit a year before I finished it. You can do it as soon as six months, but you will probably want to refinish it after it dries more thoroughly and stops moving.

  3. Bob Durance says :

    I have a piece of white elm similar to this and want to use as wall art so I want a finish that brings out the grain. Any suggestions?
    Thanks, Bob

  4. Matthew Branson says :

    Hi Scott!
    Late to the party here, but just wondering what exactly you did to finish that piece of elm. It’s absolutely gorgeous and I’d like to apply the same finish to some elm I picked up for floating shelves.


    • wunderwoods says :

      We used Krystal conversion varnish from M.L. Campbell, satin sheen. There is nothing else on it. A lacquer would give you the same look, though less protection against water. We use them both, but use Krystal when it is likely to get wet.

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