It happens all the time, people call me and tell me about trees that are so big that they can’t get their arms around them and, unrelated but still slightly humorous, they tell me about their Chinese Elms. For the record, I have seen many trees that you can’t get your arms around (which doesn’t make that nutty measuring system any less ambiguous), but the Chinese Elms that I hear about have never, ever, ever, not once, actually been Chinese Elms – they have always been Siberian Elms.
I have gotten used to it now. If someone says they have a Chinese Elm, I just assume that it is a Siberian Elm. It isn’t that big of a deal, except that there really is a Chinese Elm and I often wonder if the next call about a Chinese Elm will, in fact, yield a Chinese Elm. I like both American Elm and Siberian Elm and assume that I would like Chinese Elm as well, and I don’t want to miss my chance to mill one if it ever comes along.
The elm issue moved to the forefront after a recent trip to the Missouri Botanical Gardens when I ran across an actual Chinese Elm conveniently marked with a little official sign. I have never seen one in real life, at least that I know of, and this was a great opportunity for a close-up view of a confirmed Chinese elm tree. I took that opportunity to snap some photos for comparison. Nonetheless, just assume that your Chinese elm is actually a Siberian elm, unless it looks a lot like the photos below.
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 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!
I own and run a TimberKing 1220 manual sawmill. The manual part means that it is not automated and less expensive than other bigger models. I have had several other sawmills, and overall I am happy with this one, though I would always like a bigger and better one. It is a small entry-level mill, but can still cut a log up to 30″, which is big.
In most ways my TimberKing mill is strong enough to handle the bigger logs, even though it is not really made for them. However, there is one area that I have found severely lacking, and that is the log supports. You see, when you put a log on the mill it may roll off, so the mill has two or three posts that can be raised into a vertical position to catch and hold the log during milling. They also can be lowered out of the path of the bandsaw blade when needed. The posts need to be strong enough to support the log in a resting position, and be able to handle the pressure placed on them when turning a log. They also need to be square to the bed to help make a round log into square lumber.
The log supports on my mill don’t do any of these things well. They are made from dainty little pieces of steel that can bend quite easily and are never square to the bed. Through the years I have bent them back – never to square, but back enough to support the logs. When I want a square cant (squared up log), I take the time to shim the log and use a carpenter’s square to make sure that everything is copacetic.
Well, this week I finally did it. I put a large elm log on the mill, and I was adjusting it with a big loader when the log just rolled over the supports and off of the mill. It didn’t even notice they were there. The uprights looked like limp noodles, and it is obvious they aren’t going back to any acceptable shape. I bent them more than enough to finally provoke myself into making new ones.
The good news is that I bought the steel to do it a while ago, but have just never taken the time to do it. Looks, like now is the time.