Tree Trunk Table
One of my favorite trees, a massive elm in the back yard of my dad’s house, died during the summer of 2016. Rather than completely destroy the tree and burn or throw away its wood, my dad and I decided to fashion a large bar table from its trunk and the top of its root section. My Dad had made a bar table from a tree trunk before, but this elm trunk was nearly twice the diameter and the top surface many times the area of his old table, so we had a difficult task ahead.
The table is still not complete, as we had to move out of that house and put our work on hold. Before we left, though, we were able to remove and flip the trunk, then move it to a level surface and cut the feet and top to be parallel with that surface. The original blind cut to remove the trunk from the ground wasn’t pretty, so we took off another inch and a half from the top in a much cleaner cut to make it properly flat and level.
The four sections left behind when cutting the legs of the table ended up being large enough to form chairs from, so I threw together a simple model in Creo Parametric to base our cuts off of, and we shaped the four chairs. All of the surfaces are still chainsaw-finish, which leaves the table and chairs far from the final product, but we have the heavy work done. All that remains is to further shape and detail the surfaces, re-attach the bark that fell off and apply copious amounts of epoxy to provide a hard, clear finish. It’s uncertain when this project will be resumed, since the table and chairs are currently in storage, and my dad and I in different states, but I know that we will finish it when we’re back in the same place. I can’t leave a project this large and exciting unfinished.
To begin the process of removing and shaping the trunk, my dad and I first took measurements of other bar tables to have a reference from which to determine the height that would be best for our table. We added a few inches of play to that estimate in case we made mistakes while cutting, which we certainly did. Using a large level held parallel to earth’s surface and constrained vertically at one end to keep a plum bob hanging at a constant height, we swept the plumb bob around the trunk of the tree and marked a cutting line at its tip. This way we knew that the cutting line would be more or less in the same plane all the way around the tree and hopefully give us a nice planar cut.
It took seven months of on-and-off cutting and troubleshooting areas where cutting was very difficult to finally get the trunk to detach from the ground. We found a 6-inch-diameter chunk of concrete wedged between and beneath two roots that had to be removed before we could begin to cut anything. Using a 30-pound steel wedge, we took turns trying to shatter the piece of concrete, but the best that we could do was shave it down to a smaller size so that we could pull it out.
Once the trunk was fully separated and flipped, we found a 4-inch-diameter section filled with dirt that we had apparently cut through. That spot had been particularly difficult to cut through, we remembered, generating a lot of steam and dulling the chainsaw rapidly. The first thing that we did once the trunk was flipped was re-mark the perimeter of the surface that would end up being the top of the table so that we could recut it to be much more planar than the original blind cut. Being sure to make only shallow cuts, we used my dad’s long chainsaw to shape slices from the edge to the center into the top of the table, into 15 or so pie-slice sections. Then, keeping the blade of the chainsaw pointing parallel to the top of the table, we plunged it in from the side and swept around the center, removing each slice as it detached from the surface. This didn’t produce the flattest surface, but it was a major improvement over the original blind-cut surface.
Using a powerful belt sander, my dad spent a lot of time bringing the top surface closer to flatness and buffing out the chainsaw cuts that were still visible. With the top surface flat, we flipped the table back over and marked out the cutting lines for its legs using a sharpie marker. I had imported a bird’s-eye image of the bottom of the table into Creo Parametric prior to making the leg boundary markings and based their locations off of carefully considered symmetrical lines given by the sketch that I drew over the image. We were able to cut out all four chair sections in one day, then crudely shaped the legs of the table with a large rough chamfer on the inside, which we will reduce later to a small round.
The top of the table was still about 10 inches thick after removing the chair sections, so in order to lighten the table, some of that underside was carved out on the inside, leaving the outside intact for aesthetic purposes. The final goal is to have the five table sections shaped such that pushing in the four chairs visually recombines the whole trunk, and it looks like the full upside-down, untouched trunk. With the chair sections cut out, it wasn’t difficult to do the roughing cuts and remove the bulk of the unneeded material from each chair. We marked cutting lines based on our decided dimensions for seat, leg and base thicknesses and drew an estimated curve along the top of each chair to shape the back of the seat cavity.
This table is no precise project, but we tried to keep the sections as equally sized and dimensioned as possible for aesthetic reasons. This is as far as we have gotten thus far, with the remaining tasks of fine trimming, sanding, gluing on the detached bark and applying epoxy to finish the surface. Hopefully we’ll be back together in a few years with a good space to work and then we can finish off this table project. It’s taken quite a bit of work to get it to the point that it’s at, but I am excited to be able to actually use it as a table, so the remaining work will be worth the effort.