- Caleb Kenna
- John Monks, along with Natt Harkins and Patrick Ford
The hulking base of what was once the largest elm tree in the Northeast lies on its side outside Vermont Tree Goods' mill in Bristol. From this angle, the cross-section of the century-old trunk — which used to stand more than 100 feet tall at the Charlotte home of David Garrett — is shaped like a starburst, its gnarly edges encircling a dark, hollow core.
The tree succumbed to Dutch elm disease earlier this year. Since cutting it down on November 1, John Monks and his woodworking team have been milling the slippery elm into enormous, one-of-a-kind boards, with which they'll build live-edge furniture. Monks says they have salvaged 90 percent of the material from this tree, which equals about 10,000 board feet, or enough to make 100 dining tables.
Most big old trees don't meet such a glamorous end. Tree services often dispose of specimens of this size because they simply have no use for them. Garrett, a hobbyist furniture maker, wanted his elm to live on. So he called in Vermont Tree Goods.
Monks not only has the equipment to mill such a gargantuan tree, he makes distinctive tables and benches, as well as smaller items such as cutting boards, almost exclusively from aged trees that would otherwise go to waste. Also, he really loves trees. Monks helped facilitate a tree-hugging ceremony — which drew about 50 people on a blustery Tuesday morning — for the Charlotte elm before cutting it down.
At the Vermont Tree Goods storefront in downtown Bristol, Monks shows off his gorgeous creations. "No two pieces are the same. We're not just looking at the color and the grain," he says, "but also the shape."
He has a dining table whose top was created from one huge, swooping board of red maple. He showcases benches accented with dark streaks called spalting. "It's sort of like blue cheese," Monks explains with a smile. "It's what happens when a tree first starts to decay. The trick is to dry it before it gets too funky."
- Caleb Kenna
- Vermont Tree Goods in Bristol
He built a coffee table from tap-hole maple, a tree that was tapped for syrup. For many years, Monks explains, commercial mills wouldn't accept the bottom eight feet of sugar maples that had grown in sugar bushes because they didn't want a log full of holes. "In recent years, it's become more desirable because of the story attached to the wood," he notes.
Monks has built his business around the concept that a product sells better when it comes with a story. "People crave that," he says.
To that end, a portion of the proceeds from furniture made from the Charlotte elm will benefit the Nature Conservancy's elm-restoration project. The organization had been hoping to use seed from that tree to breed saplings resistant to Dutch elm disease, which killed the majority of 77 million American elms over decades in the 20th century. But it was too late.
Monks, a New Yorker who relocated to Stowe as a ski bum when he was 20, worked for many years as a contractor. Then, in 2010, a fire changed the course of his career. Eight months into renovating the historic Grand Army of the Republic building in Jericho, the 118-year-old hall burned to the ground. Monks' father-in-law, Jim Carter, who owned the building, had been planning to rent the space out for weddings and community events.
Monks, who was at the time moving with his wife and son to a new house in Lincoln, had been storing his family's furniture in the GAR building. He lost all of it, as well as his tools, in the blaze.
"The bright side was, it got me out of the contracting business," Monks reflects. "I was tired of being a contractor. I was really in a position to start fresh."
He began by making new furniture to replace what he'd lost in the fire. Interested in creating a single-slab, live-edge table, he asked a local tree service if it had any logs from older trees, something that would be at least three feet in diameter. It did and was happy to sell them. "They really have no use for them," says Monks. "Some of them, they just burn the pile up to make it go away, which to me is very wrong."
Monks says he decided "then and there" to make furniture full time from logs that would otherwise be discarded. There was just one hitch: How do you cut such massive logs?
"I started playing around with chain saws," Monks says. He bought the biggest one he could find; it had an eight-foot bar with a helper handle on the far end, which Monks' brother-in-law held. They cut logs this way until he concluded there had to be a less dangerous technique. He decided to design an electric chain saw.
Most mills that work with such sizable trees cut them in one of two ways: with a large band saw or with an Alaskan mill, an electric saw that slices logs horizontally. Monks' unique electric chain saw cuts vertically, so gravity helps it along. After trying out a couple of different designs, he now uses a 25-foot saw in his Bristol mill, which slices cleanly through logs so big they look like dinosaur limbs.
The Charlotte elm boards are now stacked up around the mill, where they'll dry for several months before Monks and his employees turn them into dining tables, benches and other furnishings.
Before this project, he'd never milled slippery elm, which is less common than American or white elm. "The wood is beautiful," Monks says, explaining that it looks similar to cherry, with a white sapwood edge and a red hardwood center. "There's so much to see in it. It's extraordinary stuff."
Discovering beautiful wood is one of the thrilling aspects of his job. "Most of the tree was really solid, not much rot," he says of the giant elm. "But until you cut it, you never know what you're going to find inside."