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  • John Makepeace

A Mulberry Tree Goes From Whitney Sawmills to China!

Updated: Nov 6, 2023

Flutter table in mulberry showing veneer and coloured inlays
Flutter Table Detail

Mulberry is probably my favourite timber. In Britain it can grow quite quickly, produces the most delicious fruit and, sadly, to fall over. All too often, it may then be cut up for firewood, despite its delightful grain and colour. In recent years we have made several commissions out of mulberry, including dining tables for clients in the UK, USA, China and Africa. These were from trees blown over in the 1987 gales, including one from Kew Gardens.

To be useful for furniture, the trunk really needs to be free of branches to a height of 1.5M and to have a diameter of at least 40cms. We are only able to use the heartwood; the pale sapwood is not durable. I would love to hear of any trees that might suit. Laburnum and holly of a similar size would also of interest.

One hears so often after gales of those who have lost trees that are precious to them. Where those trees are substantial and of a wood that has interesting colour and grain, it might be possible to make a celebratory piece of family furniture from the timber. I am thinking of species like walnut, oak, rippled ash and sycamore. Trunks of 3.5M and at least 60cms diameter could be planked locally with a mobile sawmill.

One of my long-standing Chinese clients commissioned a dining table and twenty chairs for their apartment, where four large paintings by Salvador Dali feature an anxious maiden finding solace in the company of butterflies. We normally make a commission from a single tree for consistency of character, but also to express the integrity of a specific tree and the diversity of grain and colour within it.

Veneers cover eight interlocking circles
Veneers cover eight interlocking circles

The design of this table comprised eight interlocking circles, nesting so that each place-setting has its own distinctive ‘territory’, in three free-standing tables. The structural concept called for the laminated legs to sweep up to become the central spine, and for the circles to be cantilevered to connect with a rim of solid ash over which the thick saw-cut veneers would run to the edge.

Finished butterfly design backed chairs
Flutter Chair

Defining the six segments of each table is a coloured inlay – green, blue and yellow, colours from the Salvador Dali paintings that then recur in the butterfly-shaped chair backs.

The client had approved the design and the idea of using ripple ash but I had no idea at that stage where I might find a suitable tree. Having talked to several of our favourite sawmills, Dermot at Whitney Sawmills thought a large tree he had recently cut through and through might suit, but it was too long for his kiln. On closer inspection, one end had a pronounced burr which could be cut off and sawn into veneers for the table top.

One problem. Instead of being pale, the centre of the tree was ‘olive’, a discolouration all too common in ash. Given that we were unlikely to find a more remarkable tree, we decided to feature the contrasts in colour by making the legs of the table and chair legs and backs, out of alternate layers of dark and pale.

The comfort of the chairs is crucially important. The slope of the seat, the central back leg and the complex curvature in the chair back all encourage good posture by supporting us in the right places. The jigs for laminating these was reverse engineered to reveal the coloured veneers within the laminations.

Sculpted chair back reveals colour of layers
Sculpted chair back reveals colour of layers

Chairs are subjected to a variety of stresses, more than any other furniture. By combining the legs and arms in a single component, enormous strength is achieved. The upholstered seat frame becomes an integral part of the structure.

Wood tends to fail at the junctions. Material science tells us that by using

complementary materials, a much higher performance is possible. Here we

have used multiple threaded steel rods and tiny amount of epoxy resin to ensure enduring connections.

The rear view of the chair illustrates the contrasting colours of the alternate layers, all bonded in a jig to specific curvatures before being sculpted to reduce weight and to express the construction.

Rear view of the contrasting colours of alternate layers
Rear view of the contrasting colours of alternate layers

To me, furniture’s role in our lives can be far more than physically functional. Beauty and comfort engage us and change the quality of our lives. We recognise great food and wine, but rarely experience similar feelings about the table we are sitting at, or indeed the chairs we occupy. It is immediately apparent when anyone with sensitivity sits down at a distinctive table that it engages their attention, their curiosity and appreciation.


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