Artisans give new life to Shelburne Farms cottonwoods: Iconic trees reach new heights as tables, bowls, earrings, picture frames

Photo by Julia Bailey-Wells
Tom Tintle applies homemade wood finish to the bowls that he turns in his workshop.

Community News Service

Tawny peels of bark and wood fiber flew from the cottonwood trunk on a recent Thursday afternoon. John Monks and his team at Vermont Tree Goods had lowered the saw to begin milling one of the trees they’d hauled from Shelburne Farms to their Bristol mill last winter.

Vermont Tree Goods is “a home for unwanted trees,” as Monks describes it. Inside, the mill is crammed with stacks of labeled slabs of lumber — a finished cherry table to be sent to Washington state, a maple bar top for WhistlePig Whiskey’s Waterbury tasting room, and the base of the largest known slippery elm tree in the Northeast, which has sat drying in a corner for two years.

“We take logs that are too big for commercial sawmills, or too misshapen,” he said. “A lot of our trees have stories behind them.”

That’s definitely true of the cottonwoods.

In December, Shelburne Farms commissioned the removal of the 16 eastern cottonwood trees that bordered its iconic Poplar Drive. The trees stood on the property for about 125 years and reached nearly 100 feet in height. But time and weather and disease took their toll. The stately trees exceeded their expected lifespan by nearly 50 years and became a hazard.

“So many of the tops were dying back, so many of the branches were coming down that it was just an unsafe thing with so many people using that road,” said Marshall Webb, whose role these days is carbon drawdown coordinator at the farm.

Removal of the cottonwoods elicited a passionate community response. “There was disappointment, and there was education that was needed to answer the question ‘why,’” said Dave Jonah, who manages the welcome center and farm store.

Jonah interacts with nearly everyone who visits the farm and walks its paths. The cottonwoods offered “a sanctuary for folks, loving that walk, going through those trees and knowing the history that was behind them,” he said.

To preserve and honor the beloved cottonwoods, Shelburne Farms has partnered with local artisans and woodworkers to repurpose the trees, Monks and his company among them.

Vermont Tree Goods is processing the bulk of the old cottonwood trunks, while Tom Tintle of Shelburne and Reed Prescott of Bristol are working to make smaller crafts from the branches and bark. Tintle has focused on creating wood bowls, while Prescott has repurposed his pieces into earrings, light-switch covers and picture frames.

Photo by Julia Bailey-Wells
Shelburne cottonwoods sit outside to dry at Vermont Tree Goods in Bristol before their transformation into tables.
Photo by Julia Bailey-Wells
Milled and labeled cottonwood slabs left to dry; later, they will become tables.

Special wood, family connections

Much like inside Monks’ mill, mid-process projects crowd Tintle’s workshop, including a shelf of nearly 100 drying bowls. Tintle taught himself to turn wood over 40 years ago on a lathe his family bought from a local shop teacher on Long Island, N.Y., for $125.

These days, he’s using a 140-year-old porch lathe, which he uses for both his bowls and for the custom cabinet knobs, balusters and furniture parts that make up his primary woodwork. Tintle turned “a couple of crude bowls” when he first taught himself, but then shifted to contracted work. He returned to bowl turning about four years ago.

“It has become sort of an addiction. It’s so much fun,” he said.

Tintle is excited to be part of the cottonwood project. “There are some trees that — just because of where they are, what they are — it’s special wood,” he said.

Reed Prescott’s involvement in the project stems from longstanding family connections to Shelburne Farms. His grandfather worked there as a farmer in his 20s, and his uncle as an accountant over 60 years ago.

Prescott was an artist and oil painter for 20 years before moving into woodwork. He has his own relationship with Shelburne Farms, participating in its annual art show and creating cards and crafts for its farm store.

Into each picture frame Prescott has made from the cottonwood, he’s inserted a picture of his grandfather — standing with a few mules in front of a stone arch at Shelburne Farms from his days as a farmer there.

“I grew up hearing stories constantly of him haying on Shelburne Farms,” Prescott said. “When I’m making these picture frames, I’m remembering these two or three stories. When I walk where they were cut down, I can picture that my grandfather was haying the field right next to that — it’s that kind of a connection.”

Back on Poplar Drive, on April 30, Vermont Tree Works planted 23 bare-root eastern cottonwood saplings from Schichtel’s Nursery in Springville, N.Y.

Each young tree is situated between where two old cottonwoods had grown. When planted, the trees were between 10 and 12 feet tall and they should grow a foot or two each year, forming a solid canopy in about five years, Holly Braugh, Shelburne Farms director of communications, explained in a blog post.

Final products

Visitors to Shelburne Farms can already find Tintle’s and Prescott’s crafts for sale in the farm store, but it will be a while before the tables are ready for purchase.

Monks guesses his team will need until winter, at the earliest, to finish the first tables, because the wood needs several months to dry. He estimates his company has enough cottonwood to make 500 tables. He expects the price to be in line with the other custom-made tables the company produces. Tables listed for sale on the company website retail for $1,500 to about $5,000.

“Our pricing is in keeping with other high-quality furniture that is built to last for generations to come,” Monks said.

Jonah hopes a few tables will end up in the Shelburne Farms welcome center, and Monks, along with Webb, plan for some of the slabs to become tables in local schools.

Some proceeds from Vermont Tree Goods’ sales will go toward the school tables.

“Kids would be able to sit at a table 4 feet wide, and they could count the rings,” Monks said. “This story is closer to the beginning than to the end.”

Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.

Tree to table: Transforming the cottonwoods

Community News Service

Crafting raw lumber into tables, bowls and other products takes time.

At Vermont Tree Goods, wood for each table starts in the yard at the Bristol mill, drying for several months in preparation for milling.

John Monks and his team cut each trunk crosswise into slabs, using a 22-foot saw that Monks designed himself. Each slab is labeled with a serial number indicating its milling date, species, and from which log it was cut.

After sealing the slabs, woodworkers must stand the wood up in the mill to dry the surface for about a week.

Monks likens cottonwood to “a wet sponge,” and it takes longer than average to dry.

Then the wood goes through another round of drying, this time stacked for several months.

Heated drying comes next: The slabs going into a kiln, starting around 80 degrees and climbing to 100, then 200 degrees over the course of a week to a month.

Why not stick the wood into the kiln at the start to speed things up?

“When you’re milling big pieces of wood, slower is better,”  Monks said. “The slower it dries, the flatter it stays, the less it warps and twists.”

Once the wood is dry, Monks transports the slabs to Stark Mountain Woodworking in New Haven, where he and his team build the tables. They return to the Bristol mill for finishing. The final step is delivery to a customer or a spot in the Vermont Tree Goods showroom.

Photo by Julia Bailey-Wells
Tom Tintle crafts bowls using a 150-year-old lathe in his Shelburne workshop.

Many steps to a bowl

Tom Tintle uses a similar process for bowl-making.

He begins by rough-turning the wood into a slightly ovular bowl with thick walls. He labels the bowl with wood origin and turning date and adds a little bit of wax on the end grain.

Next he wraps the piece in brown paper for a week or two. That slows down the drying process in the very initial stage. It then sits to dry for a few months.

Then he re-turns the bowl to refine its true shape. Reducing the bulk also aids the drying process, which lasts six more months.

The final step is finishing with walnut oil and beeswax.

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