Elm Wood | Handmade wood furniture | STUDIORossi

How It’s Made: John Updike Elm Table

Ipswich Public Library – Bringing the Elm Back to Life

From Tree to Treasure

The Ipswich Elm was a sentinel at East and County Streets for over 175 years. The Friends of the Ipswich Public Library (FOL) contacted StudioRossi to create a table for their reading room. What a fantastic opportunity to work with local elm and a storied tree.

What I did not know was the tree was in the form of a massive 48” diameter, 10’  long log in the town DPW yard! Hence the journey began. My first thought was to find a sawyer who would quarter saw the massive log to expose the tree’s grain/history to its fullest extent. To do this the FOL and I contacted Sam Herrick of Herrick Sawmill in Rowley, Mass. Sam agreed to take on the project and patiently milled through almost two centuries of nails and iron embedded in the elm.

Next came the kiln. Berkshire Forest Products graciously agreed to dry the relatively small amount of lumber. After the drying, the lumber finally made its way to my workshop in Manchester. I focused the design on the strong straight grain both in a radiating 16-piece pattern on the top and wrapping around the the apron. The brass buttons countersunk in the top reflect dates in the tree’s history.

Ipswich Library table design 16-piece top with brass date inserts – top view

Ipswich Library table design side view

Tools: Building the Tools to Build the Table

The round table required curved apron forms to be used in the vacuum press. A circular form was built of plywood around which the apron sections were wrapped and glued. Quarter round forms were fashioned to vacuum clamp resawn elm.

Detailing & Geometry: Rough Stock to Table Blank

Although the tree was quarter sawn at the Herrick sawmill, the lumber required significant milling to prepare it for use in the table design. I selected the straightest grained sections and milled blanks for all parts: top pie sections, apron veneer, and legs. In order to have pin-straight grain on the table top, I aligned my Festool track saw parallel with the grain and cut blanks from each plank. This eliminated any grain runout found in the rough planks.

Table Top: 16 Easy Pieces

Creating a starburst pattern seemed like a good idea when I was designing the table. In reality, it requires a bit of serious precision pattern-making. Once I precisely dialed in on the 22.5 degree pattern, I made up a series of plywood test pieces. Next it I began cutting the actual segments.


Milling the tabletop pieces actually went fairly quickly. Glue-up presented a different challenge. None of the joints run parallel to each other requiring opposing wedges to keep all pieces aligned when clamping pressure was applied. First came two pieces, then pairs, next quarters, and finally the two halves were glued. I experimented with one long strap clamp to bring all 16 pieces together at once but everything wanted to slip all over the workbench. Divide and conquer was the call of the day. The resulting center point was very nice to see.

Shaping & Testing: Leg Prep & Apron Detailing

After the top was glued together, I laid out the apron to see how all the pieces would come together. Next came prepping the apron for the leg bridle joint. I had to build two saddles to route parallel surfaces to accept the leg bridle joint. The leg portion of the joint was then cut and the legs were shaped on the bandsaw and cleaned up with a hand plane. I used my Lie-Nielsen No. 4.5 Smoothing Plane. Lie-Nielsen makes tools that are a joy to use. If I had the time, I would just make shavings some days!

Table Top Forming: Making More Tools 

The top needed to be rounded and recessed to accept the 1/4” glass insert. Yes, I had to build another tool. This sled accepts my Festool router I recently purchased through my buddy Clai White at Grand Banks. The tool allowed me to both create a perfect 36” round top and recess the interior 34” (leaving a 1” lip around the edge to trap the glass) precisely 1/4”. The Festool router is a super precise tool allowing for 0.1 mm adjustments in depth if needed. After the machine work was completed, I pulled out the card scrapers, and smoothing planes to clean up the surface. I also flipped the top over, drew a concentric 28” circle and hand planed the underside bevel until the outer table edge was approximately 3/4” thick. I used my grandfather’s old Stanley plane and worked through my Lie-Nielsen to a card scraper. Now all that is left is to make the buttons to attach the top to the apron and the brass date disks, apply some finish and pop in the glass.


Before I countersank the brass disks, I applied six coats of custom-blended finish to the entire piece. After coats 3 and 5 I rubbed out the piece with 0000 Liberon steel wool. Liberon’s steel wool is super clean and durable allowing for a very nice finish feel after rubbing down the piece. A coat of Liberon wax was applied after the finish cured for approximately five days. Now it was time to drill out the top and insert the disks.

Adding A Bit of Brass

After all the work that went into the table top, I was a bit apprehensive to drill the piece for the brass disks. I cut 1/4” slices off a 1/2” rod, polished the surface, punched numbers in the surface and sprayed all the disks black. I then polished the disk surfaces until only the paint in the punched numbers remained – black numbers on a shiny brass disk! A little epoxy and the top was ready for glass. My friend Jay Weaver at Weaver Glass in Beverly really helped me out with the 1/4” tempered glass. He polished the edges until they sparkled which added a nice touch to the entire project.

The Final

The table was officially unveiled at the library on June 6, 2015. Delivery was exciting since it represented a two-year journey. I have to thank the Friends of the Ipswich Library President Dorothy Johnson for staying the course and giving me the opportunity to design and build such a special project. The images below were taken by Ipswich-based photographer Marshall Dackert of MHD Portfolio.