American Elm: Back from the Dead
Popular Woodworking, August 2004

Chairmaker Don Weber vigorously works at a piece of elm with an adze to form the beginnings of a chair. Hewing the seat's gentle slopes, which merge into the center pommel, is strenuous work, in part because of the nature of the act and in part because of the nature of the wood.

The chairmaker, partial to Welsh stick-style chairs, continues to shape the seat with an inshave, a spokeshave, a travisher and sandpaper before it is acceptable. Working with elm, a notoriously tenacious wood, is not an easy task.

Most woodworkers have never worked with elm because it's so tough. It's also not easy to find. In about 1930, a shipment of French veneer logs infested with a fungus spread by elm bark beetles arrived in the United States, decimating the population of the tree. This disease is now referred to as Dutch elm disease (commonly called DED).

Today, when building furniture that will experience a lot of physical stress, we often choose other tough woods that resist splitting, such as oak and ash. Elm has become a forgotten wood. But contrary to popular belief, elm exists. What's more, it's preparing for a major comeback, and not a moment too soon. Ash trees are in grave danger and elm may soon become our "tough" wood of choice again.

The Eminent Elm

Elm, a porous wood with noticeable rings, is similar in weight to white birch. Its interlocking grain makes it a tough wood that's difficult to split. Working with elm requires sharp hand tools and strong muscles. Elm has a light grayish-brown tint and an attractive herringbone grain pattern, which many say takes a finish beautifully.

Elm also has high elasticity and wears well. Because of this, elm has been used by humans throughout history. According to Elmcare.com, in North America the Iroquois used elm bark to make many useful items including canoes, ropes, utensils and roofing. In Japan, the Ainu used elm bark to make clothing. Romans tied grapevines to living elms.

In Britain, elm was a choice wood for the hubs of wagon wheels, barrels, tables and chairs. Shaker boxmaker John Wilson of Charlotte, Mich., has a canoe from the early 1900s with ribs made from red elm (different than American elm) in part because of red elm's light weight and ability to bend well.

Elms have woven their branches in and out of our history books, too. For example, in 1765, colonists hung effigies of Lord Butte and Andrew Oliver from Boston's Liberty Elm (perhaps the most famous American elm) in protest of the infamous Stamp Act.

Today, it's hard to travel through a town or a city in the United States without crossing an "Elm Street." Fast-growing, beautiful and tough enough to survive an urban setting with roots that rarely spoiled sidewalks, elms were planted one right next to another (a grave error) along city streets. Americans loved the way the tree's thick branches flared up and arched over our nation's concrete. Elm was considered America's shade tree.

But now only old movies and street signs remind us of what was once commonplace. Despite elms' toughness, a fungus killed an estimated 77 million of them.

Shipments of unpeeled veneer logs from Europe introduced two strains of Dutch elm disease to the United States. Dying American elms were first discovered in Cleveland in May 1930. By 1977, the disease, carried by the elm bark beetle (a relatively easy task because many elms were planted in rows) had spread throughout the United States, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Streets once softly darkened by elms' thick branches became bright and bare. The arboreal disaster – a nightmare on almost every "Elm Street" – had an emotional effect one can compare only to the chestnut blight, a disease that virtually eliminated American chestnuts from our forests in the early 1900s.

Cloning the Survivors

Although millions of American elms died, hundreds of thousands still exist, says Denny Townsend, a research geneticist with the U.S. National Arboretum. Some are living because they haven't been exposed to the disease. Others have shown tolerance to it. The key to the trees' survival is finding ones that don't succumb to the disease and then cloning them.

A cloned tree is called a cultivar. To be cloned, an elm must show signs of tolerance.

Once a tolerant American elm is identified, the soft shoots (new growths on a plant) that appear between May and July are cut from the tree. The shoots are placed in a mist system to root. The roots are then dug up and planted in pots to grow. The genetic makeup of the cuttings are exactly the same as the tree they came from, Townsend says.

Thriving Cultivars

Today, several American elm cultivars are gaining popularity with names such as Liberty, Princeton, New Harmony and Valley Forge. (Think of these like you would different types of apples – Fuji, Gala and Granny Smith.)

Townsend introduced Valley Forge and New Harmony (named and released in 1995 and 1996, respectively) American elms. Valley Forge was discovered through inoculation (injecting lots of elms with the disease to see if any are tolerant). Townsend found New Harmony out in the wild, healthy and strong. Testing proved it, too, to be tolerant to Dutch elm disease.

Both cultivars now are being offered by nurseries such as The Botany Shop Garden Center in Joplin, Mo. Its owner, Mike Shade, has sold several thousand New Harmony and Valley Forge elms (he also sells Princeton elms). They have been planted in Washington, D.C.'s, national mall area and sent to Boston's famous Arnold Arboretum.

Roger Holloway, a woodworker and owner of Riveredge Farms in Atlanta, sells Princeton elms. The Princeton elm was selected by a professional nurseryman in 1920 (before Dutch elm disease hit) for its appealing shape.

The nurseryman grafted this elm's cuttings onto American elm root stock, produced identical specimens, named it the Princeton elm and began selling cultivars in 1922, according to americanelm.com.

But in the 1930s, Dutch elm disease hit and production of elm cultivars halted. Years later, scientists discovered that the Princeton elm was tolerant to the disease.

Holloway now sells Princeton elms across the county, targeting urban sites, including Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., where there are plans to plant 1,000 Princeton elms. Holloway estimates he has sold more than 20,000 trees.

William Monroe, a retired businessman who was instrumental in replanting hundreds of elms around Cincinnati, chose the Princeton elm as the cultivar of choice. None of the Princeton elms planted around the city has succumbed to Dutch elm disease, according to Larry Parker, a service area coordinator with the Cincinnati Park Board.

Since 1983, more than 250,000 Liberty elms have been planted in the United States, according to the Elm Research Institute. The institute has confirmed less than 100 cases of Dutch elm disease among the planted elms.

Deciding which elm cultivar is best is a matter of debate. Some say that while equal in tolerance, the Princeton elm has a more classic, vase-like look than Valley Forge and New Harmony. But others argue the exact opposite. Many say Liberty elms aren't as tolerant as others to the disease.

The Future of Elm

As awareness of Dutch elm disease-tolerant American elms continues to grow, urban sites and historical monuments will continue to be revitalized with this once familiar and favored tree. And with time, these elms could eventually make their way into lumberyards and woodshops – especially if the emerald ash borer has anything to say about it.

The emerald ash borer, a beetle from Asia, was first discovered attacking ash trees in summer 2002. To date, areas of southern Michigan; Windsor, Canada; northwest Ohio and a nursery in Maryland all have reported diseased trees, says Steven Katovich, a forest entomologist with the Forest Service. Already 6 million to 7 million ash trees have died in the six counties that surround Detroit. Some predict the beetles will be as devastating as Dutch elm disease and the chestnut blight.

Shade, the owner of The Botany Shop, predicts that if the ash borer spreads despite attempts to stop it, American elms could replace the thousands of ash trees that could die from the disease.

Several lumberyards have stopped carrying ash, not because of emerald ash borers but because of another group of beetles called powder post beetles. While emerald ash borers attack living trees, powder post beetles bore their way through wood products turning them into a powdery dust.

For woodworkers of the future, these two problems could mean a switch from ash to elm for projects that require tough woods.

Of course, elm isn't out of the woods yet. In Saskatchewan, Dutch elm disease is relatively new (it was first discovered attacking elms there in 1981). The Saskatchewan Dutch Elm Disease Association is fiercely fighting the disease by removing infected trees, promoting diversification and requiring woodworkers to obtain permits to use elm wood, says Sheri O'Shaughnessy, the association's executive director.

Then there's the Asian long-horned beetle, which was discovered attacking trees in 1996 in New York and in 1998 in Chicago. Although the beetle prefers maples, it also attacks horse chestnuts, willows and elms, says Dennis Haugen, an entomologist with the Forest Service.

The banded elm bark beetle was found last summer attacking elm trees in the western United States. It's too early to determine if Dutch elm disease-tolerant elms are tolerant to the banded elm bark beetle, too.

No one knows the effect these diseases ultimately will have on elm. But thousands of Dutch elm disease-tolerant elms have been planted and are thriving today.

How to Get it

Like the beautiful slap of bird's eye maple your neighbor got from a friend of a friend, the best way to buy American elm is to let it be known that you're looking and simply wait. None of the woodworkers interviewed for this article has worked with Liberty, Princeton, New Harmony or Valley Forge elms because the trees are too young. Most woodworkers patiently wait for wild American elms that survived Dutch elm disease to reach maturity and naturally fall.

Weber, the chairmaker who lives in Paint Lick, Ky., keeps his eyes open for fallen elms while driving in cities. But when working with street trees, Weber says you constantly have to watch out for wire, nails and staples.

Weber's latest batch of elm came from Kentucky's governor's mansion. There, an elm had to be removed because of damage done during an ice storm.

Wilson, the boxmaker, buys red elm more frequently than American elm. Red elm isn't affected by Dutch elm disease so it's plentiful in Michigan. He says he also prefers red elm's nut-brown color to elm's light tan.

If you don't have the patience to wait for lightning to strike (literally), you can check your local lumberyard, but good luck. Most don't carry it. But, as Dutch elm disease-tolerant cultivars continue to grow and mature (and ash trees continue to fight for their lives), elms may once again become popular at the lumberyards and in the wood stacks – despite it being a challenge to work with.

Weber is fond of Raymond Tabor's book "Traditional Woodland Crafts" (Batsford). In it, Tabor writes, "Folklore characterizes elms as billowing timber trees whose wood is tough, resistant to the wedge, fit only for coffin boards. But use it young and green and you will find a lovely wood, versatile and easy to work with."

After finishing a set of elm seat blanks, Weber might not agree with the word "easy" in Tabor's passage. But, as the chairmaker shows off a large pile of American elm that was recently delivered to his shop, he points out its fine figure. Like most who frequently curse the wood while working it, Weber is quick to praise its strength and beauty.

Urbanites are already experiencing a renewed sense of appreciation for elms. And as our ash supply becomes questionable, it's just a matter of time before woodworkers embrace elms' virtues, too. PW

For More Elm Information:

—Story by Kara Gebhart
—Opening photo copyright Cameron Davidson
—Photo at right by Al Parrish