In February of this year, farmers G.S. Shropshire & Sons found a massive trunk of black bog oak thousands of years old in their field at Downham Market, Cambridgeshire, east England. The marshy Fenland area is known as a treasure trove of ancient timber which fell when sea levels rose starting around 7000 years ago. The fallen timbers were preserved in the silty water that would become peat. This trunk is 44 feet long and weighs five tons. There is no sign of tapering at either end, which means that this is just a section from the middle of the original tree, possibly no more than a quarter of it. Most of the trees from the East Anglian fenlands date from between 5,000 and 1,500 B.C. Its excellent state of preservation suggests that the tree it came from fell closer to the earlier date (newer trees fell on piles of older trees, leaving parts of them exposed to the elements), and radiocarbon dating of other bog oak recently recovered in the area returned a date of around 3,300 B.C.
The finders alerted cabinet makers Adamson and Low, specialists in bog oak processing who purchase hundreds of logs a year from fenland farmers who turn them up while working their fields. Hamish Low recognized that the size and condition of this trunk made it exceptional, that as a remnant of the giant trees that once bristled in England’s forests this specimen should be saved for the nation instead of being made into small furniture pieces.
It can’t be saved whole. After spending a few millennia in the comfy anaerobic conditions of fen peat, ancient bog wood begins to deteriorate as soon as it is exposed to the air. It’s waterlogged and needs to be fully dried as quickly as possible or else it’ll rot away. It has to be quarter-sawn and then dried artificially to ensure a constant rate of moisture extraction. The standard practice with large pieces of bog oak is to sawmill them at the recovery spot into lengths of no more than 12 feet. Once the rough planking is done, it’s milled into boards and placed in kilns to dry for months. You can’t just put the whole trunk in a kiln because the inside will rot before the slow drying heat has a chance to reach it.
Besides, bog oak is beautiful and historical, but it’s first and foremost a carpentry wood, prized for centuries as England’s only native black timber. (The tannins in the oak react to iron in the subsoil to turn the wood dark brown or black.) Because the giant oaks were so much larger than they are today, bog oak wood has medullary rays far wider than in modern oak. That makes for a thick stripe grain that looks particularly gorgeous on quarter-sawn boards. Traditional drying methods couldn’t preserve it in thick pieces, so its main use was as inlay wood or in the making of smaller decorative or furniture items. It’s only in the past 20 years that drying technology has advanced enough to allow the preservation of substantial hunks of ancient wood.
Hamish Low had the ambitious idea to preserve the majesty of this trunk while still tying it into the hundreds of years of British carpentry tradition. He could go ahead and plank the trunk, but instead of dividing the planks into more easily dried boards, they would be kept in their 44-foot lengths. Once dried the planks would shrink, but they’d still be massive and could be used to make a giant table. That huge tabletop could then be exhibited as an example of and tribute to the arboreal giants that once dominated the English landscape. There isn’t a single piece of bog oak as such on public display in the UK. Here was the perfect opportunity to rectify that oversight.
He enlisted the support of the Worshipful Company of Carpenters, the London trade association that is the descendant of the medieval carpentry guild, which got the official imprimatur of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on the project. Businesses and schools donated money, expertise, volunteers and equipment to mill, transport and dry full-length planks.
With specialized equipment and a team of 40 volunteers including expert millers, heavy machinery operators and students from the Building Crafts College in place, the giant trunk was unearthed on September 25th. It was lifted onto a 52-foot sawmill shipped from Canada courtesy of the Swedish company Logosol. The trunk was then sawn into ten 44-foot-long planks which were not only majestic in size but also particularly beautiful. Said an ecstatic Mr. Low:
“I’ve worked with Fenland Black Oak for over 20 years and this is not only the biggest piece I have ever seen, but the quality of the sawn planks is incredible. The tree has truly excelled herself.”
After milling, the planks were transported to the Building Crafts College facility in Stratford, East London, where they were placed in a kiln 50 feet long that was custom-built by the students expressly for this project.
The planks will dry in the kiln for six months. Hamish Low and his apprentice will supervise the students in the design of the table while the planks dry. They will also take advantage of the time to build the base to which the massive tabletop will be affixed. Finally, when the wood is dry, the team will make the tabletop and put the whole thing together. The estimated completion date is summer 2013.
The ultimate destination for this great table representing the great forests of England is as of yet undetermined. It will be open to the public, that much we know. You can follow the progress of the Fenland Black Oak Project on their website. I cannot wait to see the completed table. It’s going to be gorgeous for sure.