Grinnell College’s felled walnut trees graduate into benches

  • Small walnut bench displayed during 2019 alumni weekend at Grinnell College.
(Note: Slide captions at end of post.)
 
By Kevin Field
 
A while back, I received a very intriguing email. Grinnell College of Grinnell, IA, – my alma mater – was planning a major expansion of one of its oldest instructional buildings, and several very large, black walnut trees stood within the new-construction footprint.
 
Chris Bair, the college’s environmental and safety coordinator, contacted me and several other alum woodworkers to solicit proposals for using the urban (campus) harvest to create commissioned benches for the new and newly renovated buildings. A full circle. How cool was that?!
 
Luckily, I was able to meet with Chris onsite – before the trees were felled – to advise on sectioning, milling and air drying.
 
Howard McDonough and Mick Goebel slabbed the 70- to 80-year-old trees. Two years later, I transported a number of air-dried, 2” x 24” x 8’ black walnut slabs from Iowa to my shop in Westmont, IL. I air-dried them to 7% moisture content (MC) in my dining room over the winter. (I had to kick the wife out first – proceed with caution.) In the spring, I constructed two commissioned benches I designed for the college to display within the new building.
 
The ball-shaped defect in the close-up photo of the back rail of the longer of the two benches is a lead bullet! I found a number of bullets embedded in the tree, and was able to incorporate a visible example into the bench design under a clear epoxy filler. The presence of the bullets is an intriguing mystery as the walnut trees were located right in the middle of campus – not a location where guns would be expected to be fired.
 
Having strolled in the shade of those very walnut trees on my way to many a lecture class over the four years I attended Grinnell, it gives me great pleasure to know that the legacy of those majestic trees has been conserved and transformed into heirloom pieces of beautiful furniture that Grinnell students can continue to use and admire into the future. 
 
Kevin Field is owner of Field Joinery & Design Studio of Westmont, IL. Learn more at customwoodwerker.com.
 
Slide Captions
Slide 1: Shorter walnut bench on display in campus gallery during Grinnell College’s 2019 Alumni Reunion Weekend.

Slide 2: Wind motif flows into the natural grain pattern in back-rest panels.

Slide 3: One of the Grinnell College walnut logs is milled into lumber.

Slide 4: Walnut trees 1, 3, & 4 in the plan view were the source of the lumber used for the benches.

Slide 5: Some of Grinnell College’s walnut trees prior to removal.

Slide 6: Lead bullets shown in the position they were found encased in the walnut lumber, including two wedged against each other. They were incorporated into bench back-rail – visible under clear epoxy.

Slide 7: Carving book-matched back-rest panels achieved using rotary tool with burrs and reciprocating chisel handset.
 
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