There’s no replacement for the majesty of a 175-year-old Elm tree canopy, but if there is a second life for such beauty – lost to Dutch Elm Disease – and Carpenter Austin Vyas thinks it can be accomplished in his woodshop.
Vyas was one of the reclaimed woodworkers that took away the first crop of diseased American Elm trees cut down – sadly – in Franklin Square last March out of necessity. Since that time, in his garage woodworking shop in Milton, he’s milled one of those trees (the one cut down closest to the perimeter fence) into slabs and made several unique items out of the rare, hard-to-find wood.
“It’s a privilege to be able to work with this wood,” he said last week in his woodshop. “It’s really rare to find a tree with no rot. Boston Parks don’t cut down many trees that are usable like this unless they have a disease. It’s absolutely a rare gift to have. For color, yes. For workability, yes. There are so many things. It’s a really fortunate that we can save a couple of slabs from this tree. It could have been chipped and turned into firewood. A big mill could have claimed them and it would have warped in the kiln and they would have burned it. They don’t have time to take the care to give it a second life. That’s what I do.”
Vyas, 20, is a pre-med student at Northeastern University who also works for Fallon Ambulance, so he uses reclaimed woodworking as a hobby rather than a business. When he does sell pieces, they are simply to fund his hobby rather than to create an enterprise.
“I don’t have a lot of free time, so it’s something I can come home to,” he said. “I put on the headphones and zone out with the wood for a while. It’s a hobby and so I just try to make enough to pay for my equipment so I can keep it going.”
Early last Spring, the Blackstone/Franklin Neighborhood Association and the Friends of Franklin Square announced with the City of Boston that many of the 175-year-old American Elm trees in Franklin Square were diseased. The group came up with a plan to try to save the majority of the trees, but that plan meant that several of the trees would have to be cut down and disposed of. Instead of destroying them in a chipper, Blackstone’s Matt Muse reached out to several reclaimed woodworkers.
One man took two of the large trees.
Vyas took the third, renting a U-Haul truck and loading it up with the arborist for a trip south to Milton. There are restrictions on such things, he said. One either has to take it 50 miles out of the City, or they have to have it sterilized through kiln-drying within 90 days. Living in Milton, Vyas had the tree kiln-dried, which caused a fair amount of unavoidable warping when he milled it at his home.
So far, he has about eight slabs that he’s working with, and he said he estimated the tree at 165 years old when he counted the rings. He also said, after researching, he believes it’s a Siberian Elm rather than an American Elm. The tree also showed evidence of grafting by someone during its younger days. That expensive and time-consuming process, he said, was common in Boston parks in the early days.
“They were more concerned with the diversity of the look of the trees in the park rather than the cost and man hours,” he said. “Grafting a tree is really hard and takes meticulous care. The American Elm took better to the soil here and they would often graft it with Chinese Elm or Dutch Elm. This tree does have evidence of grafting.”
American Elms were very common at one time in Boston, and were the most prevalent tree. However, from the 1970s to the 1990s, Dutch Elm Disease wreaked havoc on the trees in Boston parks – with nearly 80 percent disappearing by many estimates. The Franklin Square trees somehow withstood that onslaught and survived in health up until now.
That’s why it is so rare to be able to work with them, and also it gives them a story. Vyas reclaims old trees all over the region, some as old as 350 years, but like the Franklin Square trees, none come without a story.
“Absolutely every piece in my garage I mill with a story attached to it,” he said. “You can buy hardwood lumber from a big-box store and it looks great. If you’re going to put this in your home and it’s going to be this unique, you want a story with it.”
So far, Vyas has made some cutting boards from the Franklin Square tree, and a large wine rack as well – complete with some amazing meandering ring structures. He has one person on Albany Street that has requested a finished piece for a desk, and he also has several serving trays too.
He said he is working with Blackstone/Franklin to figure out a way to put a park bench in Franklin Square made from the tree in order to really bring it back home.
“I’m so grateful to them for reaching out to me, and I’ve been talking with them about maybe using one of the slabs for a bench in the park,” he said. “We’re hoping the politics of it all could work out. Hopefully the City sees it the way I do.” He said he hopes to come