Parts of elm tree outside Neilson Library reappear inside as furniture

  • Wood craftsman Sam French of Gill with one of the “cookie tables” he built for Smith College’s Neilson Library. The wood came from a venerable elm tree just outside the library that had to be taken down. PHOTO BY KIM LINDNER/TIME BANDIT PHOTOGRAPHY

  • Sam French with one of the three large “live edge” tables he built for Smith College’s Neilson Library. The wood came from a venerable elm tree just outside the library that had to be taken down. PHOTO BY KIM LINDNER/TIME BANDIT PHOTOGRAPHY

  • This 10-foot conference table on the second floor of the Ruth Simmons wing is one of the works that wood craftsman Sam French of Gill rendered from a 125-year-old elm that was removed during the construction and renovation of Neilson Library at Smith College. Photographed on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This table on the ground floor of the central core of the Neilson Library was rendered by Gill wood craftsman Sam French from a 125-year-old elm felled during the renovation of the library at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A detail of one of the tables that wood craftsman Sam French of Gill rendered from a 125-year-old elm removed during the construction and renovation of Neilson Library at Smith College. Photographed on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2021 7:28:38 PM

The work of Maya Lin, the architectural designer of Smith College’s revamped Neilson Library, is noted for its environmental components, such as the big increase in natural light that’s a key part of the renovated library.

But remodeling the building over the past few years came with one noted environmental cost: a nearby 125-year-old elm tree was cut down as a precaution when utility work disturbed its roots.

Yet parts of the tree have been preserved by Sam French, a Gill wood craftsman, who has turned those wood sections into new tables and benches for the library.

French, owner of Gill Country Clear Woodworks, has created nine different pieces of what’s known as “live edge furniture,” which uses the natural contours of wood planks. Only a tree’s bark is removed, and “imperfections” such as knots and non-straight edges are retained.

French’s creations include two “cookie tables,” which were made from slabs of the tree trunk and retain the trunk’s curves and irregular edges. His other tables and benches have a more traditional rectangular shape, though not with perfect straight edges. All of the works, with their shiny veneers and deep, rich colors, offer a striking contrast to the more varied modern furniture in the library.

In a phone interview, French said he’d never worked on a project of this scale nor made that many pieces of furniture for a single customer. “I’ve made some big pieces for bars and a few other places, but this was really a one-of-a-kind process,” he said. 

The idea for the tables, he said, came from Lin, who twice visited his mill and workshop to describe her ideas and offer drawings on what she was looking for. Once French got started on the project, there were frequent Zoom conversations with Lin and with staff from Shepley Bulfinch, the architectural firm handling the library renovation, to discuss ongoing details of the furniture construction.

“There were so many decisions to go over, from the size of the table legs to the epoxy to the coating,” he noted. “But I really enjoyed the work and the collaborative nature of it.”

He credits three other partners in the project. The metal bases for his three large reading tables were fabricated at Northfield Fab & Machine by Bruce Golinski and then painted at Doug’s Auto Body in Gill, while the legs for his four benches were turned by Pat Moriarty at The Conway Chair Company.

Smith College officials say French was hired to do the work because of his commitment to land protection, preservation, and sustainability. He says his business, which includes a tree farm, is built around careful harvesting of mature trees that are then sawn on site and made into a range of products: full bars, cabinets, dining room tables, stools, conference tables, wood art and more.

French, who’s also a musician and spent time pursuing that as a career before returning to woodworking, says making the Neilson Library furniture was also enjoyable because the work “was a blend of making something functional while also bringing this creative and artistic element to it, and for a project [the library renovation] that has the same dynamic. And that’s a lot of fun.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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