Back in March 2016, a storm blew through Riverside, uprooting a roughly 160-year white oak tree on public land in the 300 block of Fairbank Road.

In most cases, such trees are destined for the wood chipper, but Village Forester Michael Collins had other dreams for this particular tree, which stood at the time the Chicago businessmen behind the Riverside Improvement Company were planning a new country retreat called Riverside.

“This tree was here when Frederick Law Olmsted was walking the town,” said Collins, referring to the man who laid out the village’s general plan of curving streets and public greenways.

Collins convinced village leaders to reclaim the wood from the fallen oak and on Aug. 16, a year and a half after the storm, the tree is coming back to Riverside in the form of three custom-built pieces that will serve as the village board’s council table. 

The first board meeting at which the tables will be used will be Aug. 17. The two men responsible for transforming the raw wood into furniture – craftsman Paul Meyer and sawmill operator Dan DeSerto – personally will deliver the tables the day before the meeting. 

“We were able to take a 160-year-old white oak and preserve it for generations to come,” said Collins, who also views the reclamation project as a chance to educate.

“The idea behind the project is to utilize the wood for a higher purpose and lock up the wood/carbon in order to help mitigate the impacts of climate change and global warming,” Collins added in an email. “Most urban wood is used for firewood or mulch, which is quickly degraded and carbon is released into the atmosphere, impacting the amount of greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere.”

 Good old-fashioned networking led Collins to DeSerto and Meyer, who operate businesses next door to one another in far northwest suburban Woodstock. 

Back in early 2015, Collins was looking for a way to find someone who might be interested in turning dozens of dead ash trees that had been removed from Indian Gardens into lumber.

For years, Collins had been talking about the concept of utilizing urban wood for other purposes with Edith Macra, a colleague at the Morton Arboretum. She put him in touch with Don Peterson, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Sustainable Resources Institute, who directed him to DeSerto’s Bull Valley Hardwood sawmill, set on 40 acres in Woodstock.

DeSerto ended up buying about $1,600 in ash timber from Riverside. A little more than a year later, he heard from Collins again, about an oak tree that the village wanted to transform into tables for the village board.

“Mike called me and asked if we could mill the [oak], dry it down to a usable state and make new council tables,” said DeSerto, 60, a software developer who’s spent the past five years bringing Bull Valley Hardwood to fruition. 

He’s in the process of selling his two software companies to devote all of his time to the combination sawmill, lumber supply store and woodworking shop.

“My goal is to retire full time into woodworking,” DeSerto said.

While DeSerto said his company was capable of making the tables, he thought the tables needed the hand of an expert. So, referred Collins to Meyer, a longtime educator and four-term Woodstock High School board member.

“He’s exceptionally talented,” DeSerto said of Meyer, 59, who retired from his job as a woodworking teacher at Harvard High School in June to turn to his business, Woodstock Woodworks and Studio Ltd., full time.

While Meyer designed the tables throughout the summer of 2016, it wasn’t until February that he took possession of the lumber from DeSerto, who needed a lot of time to mill and then slowly kiln-dry the wood.

Meyer gave Riverside four examples of tables, and the village chose a design where table tops are supported by thick pedestals. The village also requested that the tables be on wheels, so they’d be easy to move. Instead of exposing the wheels, Meyer designed tables where wheels can be raised and lowered without exposing them.

There are three tables, all 30 inches high. Two of the table tops are 32 inches wide-by-8 feet long. Those will flank a central table that is 6-feet long and which has a central front panel emblazoned with Riverside’s village logo.

The design of the final panel was arrived at through trial and error on DeSerto’s CNC router, which essentially engraved the logo into the wood. Meyer then spent more than five hours painting the engraved logo by hand.

“It just blew me away at how cool it looks,” Meyer said.

As far as style, Meyer settled on Prairie style and the geometric design on the pedestals is made from about 100 pieces of oak veneer. Meyer obtained a warm, golden color not by staining the wood, but by exposing it to ammonium hydroxide, which reacted with the tannins in the oak.

The tables ended up costing the village $9,500, but that figure doesn’t include the many hours DeSerto and Meyer donated to the project, said Collins. 

If the village had paid retail prices, said Collins, the three tables would have cost the village $22,500 instead of the $9,000 Riverside paid Meyer, and the sawmill costs would have been $3,000 instead of the $500 they actually paid.

“In reality, Dan and Paul donated a significant amount of time and equity,” Collins said. “The amount spent wouldn’t reflect what it would really cost on the market.”

In the end, Collins credited networking and a supportive village administration for making the tables a reality.

“I’m grateful to Paul and Dan, but also Don and Edith for making the connection,” Collins said. “Networking allowed this to evolve into something that was bigger than the sum of its parts.”

Collins said that it’s unlikely that repurposing urban wood can be used in every instance, but this particular tree was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“When we see an opportunity, it’s important for foresters to recognize possibilities and work with officials,” Collins said. “Without their support, none of this would have happened.”

Ash trunks to teach Riverside history

In addition to the tables made from a fallen oak tree, Riverside will soon take possession of a couple of 30-inch diameter discs of ash from trees taken down a few years ago at Indian Gardens.

The trees, according to Riverside Forester Michael Collins, were pre-settlement ash trees that fell victim to the emerald ash borer. Right now, the raw 8- to 12-inch discs – they’ll be cut down to 1.5 inches eventually – are slowly air drying on the floor of Bull Valley Hardwood, a sawmill in northwest suburban Woodstock owned by Dan DeSerto.

If you dry out the wood too quickly, DeSerto said, the end grain can crack overnight. That can be prevented by treating the wood with chemicals, said DeSerto, “but we wanted to do it naturally.”

When the discs have dried sufficiently, they will be sanded on all sides – the edges will retain the remarkably beautiful ribbons left behind by the burrowing insect that killed the tree – and sealed with a coat of finish.

The goal is for the village to use the discs to educate people about the dangers of pests like the ash borer and also about the history of Riverside, which can be told through the age rings of the tree discs.

“The endgame is to do some dendrochronology [tree-ring dating],” Collins said. “In reality we’d be showcasing that historical component but also the [ash borer damage] is a real good visual.”

Bob Uphues

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