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Thread: Working With Elm Wood

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Oct 2019
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    West Michigan
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    Working With Elm Wood

    Two years ago we had a large elm tree taken down from our backyard (which was an adventure in itself - small urban backyard, had lots of cooperation from the neighbors). I had the brilliant idea of having it cut into lumber and located a local sawyer with a kiln. Ended up with enough live edge slabs and planks to fill a 10'x15' storage unit. I managed to sell most of the live edge slabs and broke even on the costs of sawing and drying. Saved three live edge slabs to make a desk for myself and coffee tables for my kids.

    I now have a stack of planks in the garage, 5"-6" wide, 8'-14' long, total of about 200 board feet. I need to move the planks to make enough room to park one car in a two-car garage this winter

    I'm thinking of making some semi-rustic furniture, such as small bookcases and benches. Before I start cutting, a couple of pertinent questions:

    • Has anyone here worked with elm? I have read that elm is not the most stable wood, and is best suited for small projects. I'm thinking of cutting the planks into 4" lengths. Although it pains me to cut up a 14' plank, the longer length is probably not of any value
    • My favorite way to join the edges of boards is to cut channels on a router table and use splines. I'm thinking this might not be the best idea for a less stable wood, and perhaps I should just plane and join the edges with no glue and expect some movement.


    Any insights are much appreciated.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2010
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    WNY
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    I've only worked with slippery or red elm a little, but did not find it difficult to work with. Parts that I face jointed and planed stayed as flat as any other wood. I glued up panels with typical edge to edge joints. No issues there either.

    John

  3. #3
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    Mar 2016
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    Elmodel, Ga.
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    I had a similar situation with an elm tree. Yielded a little over 22 bf. I have been air drying mine for almost 4 years. The sawyer told me that elm will twist and cup badly if not properly weighted and stickered when drying. I put stickers every 18" and put what seems like a ton of cinder blocks on top. I have pulled a few out for milling and have had no issues, other than a little cupping on a few. 5/4 original stock yielded 11/16 final thickness after getting out the cupping. Not the best yield, but it is what it is. I had no issues with glue up or any other problems.
    I did save a few large logs for bowl turning. Turned green and sealed the blanks. While turning green, the wood is extremely interlocked for a better term. It is twisty, but fun to turn. Makes some beautiful bowls and platters. Beautiful red to reddish brown colors. Love the stuff for that.
    I have not attempted any large furniture pieces yet, but that's coming soon.
    Keep us posted on your experience and outcome.
    My Dad always told me "Can't Never Could".

    SWE

  4. #4
    Elm can be squirrelly, but it can also dry nicely, hard to predict. Watch out for internal tension. The grain is often very interlocked (kind of like spaghetti actually), so don't plan on sawing and planing everything by hand. Sharp blades on power tools are your friend, as is your random orbit sander. It is a pretty wood, and it almost looks more like a tropical wood than a domestic hardwood. I don't see any reason not to edge joint, spline/biscuit the boards, and glue them. It isn't any more unstable than hard maple or birch, and people glue those up all the time. You just need to compensate for movement like any other wood. Just expect a little more than average.

    If the boards dried flat, you can probably use them in longer lengths. It can make nice turnings, again sharp tools are essential. Note that sometimes it can stink as you work it, not quite as bad as pi$$ oak, but close.

    It wasn't real common as historically used wood, mostly because it can be a pain to work by hand. Most of its historical uses were specific to where the properties of the interlocked grain were an advantage, like parts of chairs or ships.

    I've mostly worked with American elm milled up from trees we had cut down due to Dutch elm. It isn't common wood to find even today. I can find Red Elm locally, but not at every supplier. I do still have some American Elm on hand that the old man had milled up a few years back.
    Last edited by Andrew Seemann; 10-14-2021 at 1:14 AM.

  5. #5
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    Sep 2016
    Location
    Modesto, CA, USA
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    6,533
    Several years ago we went into antique furniture store that had a lot of Chinese furniture made 100+ years ago. Looked similar to mission with through tenons, dovetails, not much iron. He said most of it was elm. Some good size pieces so they could find old growth stable stuff back then.
    Bill D

  6. #6
    Years ago my former wife and I bought a round “tavern table” made of elm. To me it has a look that is humble ,but perhaps “charming “,
    the grain was so open that with some added Minwax and wax it reminded me of one of those old plastic key rings that made Bugs Bunny or
    a “bathing beauty “ wiggle a bit.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Feb 2003
    Location
    Orrville, Ohio
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    45
    A friend had a red elm log milled years ago and asked me to build this table for her. The rough-sawn boards did not dry straight at all - lots of random twisting, cupping and warping but they were thick enough to still net out some beautiful pieces which is what the trestle legs are made of. There was not enough to build the whole table so a local lumber supplier had some gray elm on hand that he let me have at a bargain price. The table top is the gray elm and is edge glued with mortised and tenoned breadboard ends. You can clearly see the color difference in the first picture, but luckily it stained very evenly.

    It's only been 2 years since i built it, but it's still flat with no signs of failure - yet! Working it seemed a little harder than oak, but sanded nicely and yielded a very smooth finish. The pictures were taken during the finishing process - the last 2 have 3 coats of waterborne lacquer.

    Table3.jpg

    Table4.jpg

    Table6.jpg

    Table7.jpg

    Table9.jpg

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Oct 2019
    Location
    West Michigan
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    7
    Thanks everyone for all the info. I will cut the planks into longer lengths as cracks and knots permit.

    Rod - your table is most impressive!

    I have only planed down one plank so far to make a coat rack (a board with wrought iron hooks). After planing it to ~3/4" I was able to true the edges and cut chamfered edges with a hand plane (something I am not skilled at) It indeed worked easily. I think it is American elm, has a nice tawny color with some reddish highlights.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
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    Northern Michigan
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    Quote Originally Posted by John TenEyck View Post
    I've only worked with slippery or red elm a little, but did not find it difficult to work with. Parts that I face jointed and planed stayed as flat as any other wood. I glued up panels with typical edge to edge joints. No issues there either.

    John
    John, red elm is awesome, white elm is a nightmare. Small pieces, but it is unstable. When the elm died off up here I had a ton of both and had it milled and dried, and the red elm was a delight and made some nice furniture, or at least as nice as my skills at the time allowed. But the white elm not so much. Much of it ended up heating my house. Its funny too, the white elm would rot in a year, but the red took years to rot as dead standing trees so there must be a huge difference between them.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Mar 2003
    Location
    San Francisco, CA
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    9,771
    I built a dining chair from American Elm. It milled and sanded and glued just fine, and I still have it 20 years later. The one odd thing about the wood was that it was noticeably more flexible than woods like oaks or cherry or maple. Y'know how you lean back on the rear legs of a dining chair, and maybe twist it a little? I built chairs of similar design from other hardwoods, and the elm one flexed more than the others. This wasn't a disaster -- just a bit of a surprise.

    The other odd thing about American Elm is that it smells like sweaty horses.

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Jan 2013
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    sykesville, maryland
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    Elm with Indonesian cherry sides. Machined just fine and seems to be stable enough. 10688302_774521562656018_2258881003476970831_o.jpg

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Oct 2019
    Location
    West Michigan
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    Tom - fantastic cabinet, great choice of hardware.

    Since beginning this thread I have been tasked with building benches to expand seating in our dining room

  13. #13
    Quote Originally Posted by tom lucas View Post
    Elm with Indonesian cherry sides. Machined just fine and seems to be stable enough. 10688302_774521562656018_2258881003476970831_o.jpg
    Source/brand for that hardware?

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Jan 2013
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    sykesville, maryland
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tyler Bancroft View Post
    Source/brand for that hardware?
    I bought them 6 years ago from D. Lawless hardware. I don't think he has stock but you can find by googling :
    "Antique Brass Weathered Leaf Finger Pull 1" AM-BP1583-R2"

    I liked them because they were simple, inexpensive (at that time), and "manly" enough for a tool chest. Lee Valley has them too.
    Last edited by tom lucas; 10-19-2021 at 8:59 PM.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by tom lucas View Post
    I bought them 6 years ago from D. Lawless hardware. I don't think he has stock but you can find by googling :
    "Antique Brass Weathered Leaf Finger Pull 1" AM-BP1583-R2"

    I liked them because they were simple, inexpensive (at that time), and "manly" enough for a tool chest. Lee Valley has them too.

    Thanks a bunch, cheers.

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