Friday, February 4, 2011

Zelkova serrata

Referred to as 'Keyaki' in Japan, a type of Elm, the wood from the tree is one of the most revered
materials for woodwork.  It has been widely used through history in construction and for furniture or other interior items.  A deciduous tree of medium hardness, the wood has a unique and striking golden color to it, and the grain is often quite beautiful, and with a number of pattern variations.  I haven't used it so much, the grain being rather bold, I found it a little strong when wanting to produce subtle designs, but my eye has been changing and I'm liking it more and more for furniture.

The tree grows quite abundantly in Japan and is hearty.  It has been suggested as a good replacement for Elms in the states, so ravaged by the Dutch Elm disease, Zelkova being greatly resistant to the blight.
Favored in gardens around homes, the mature tree makes for great shade, so you usually don't have to go far when in some areas to find nice old specimens.  The size can become huge, with very broad limb spreads, the tree often being hundreds of years old. It is seen in parks and around temples as well, and sometimes will be lining a street in the city.  There are still a few ancient trees that can be found, on up to a thousand years old or more.

The wood can sometimes be rather hard and heavy, but it isn't a particularly difficult material to work with, either when machining or when using hand tools.  Wood from younger trees is rather susceptible to warping, so it's the material from the older trees that is most desirable, and with the longer growing, there is usually also the advantage of better color and tighter grain.  Like other Elms, the grain tends to be very interwoven, so it is less susceptible to cracking than a lot of hardwoods.  In that respect, doing things like wedging tenons close to the edge of the wood can be done successfully, where with other species a much greater degree of caution would be required.

The chair is made from Keyaki, a design I picked up from an old one that belonged to a friend in England. I don't recall what the original was made from, possibly Beech with an Elm seat, a common combination of woods during the era in which it was built. It had been his grandfather's chair, and was still in very good condition and getting daily use.  I lightened and simplified mine a bit, particularly the legs which had a series of rings, changed the way the arm joins into the back corner post, and later an urushi artist finished it with a number of coats of lacquer.  I thought that it turned out very well. It sold at an exhibition in Nagoya, and another person requested that I make him one as well.  Very nice to receive the positive response, as I had not built this design for a number of years, and the first time in Zelkova.  The seating is comfortable, and makes a very nice desk or reading chair, and terribly English...

The Urushi is fairly dark initially, but lightens up considerably over time.  Photos don't really do it justice.  The sheen is very warm and inviting with a very attractive depth, and it is also amazingly durable as a finish.


Dan McCallum said...

Nice post! Love the zelkova tree, I hope it stays standing for a long time still. And a beautiful job on the chair, the grain selection is unbelievable. I am not surprised that you have been asked to make another. I find that most of the elm that I mill here locally smells bad when milled, and still when it is worked. Shellac will prevent it in the finished item. Does the zelkova also smell? Enjoying all your posts, keep up the good work!

djy said...

Hi Dan, thanks. Yes, Zelkova has a rather pungent smell, not quite the moldy dank sort that I know from English Elm, perhaps what you encounter as well, but it is strong, a bit like old rubber. If you go into a shop where someone has been using it, the smell is immediately recognizable. Similar thing with it as you describe, once a finish is applied, the smell disappears or is only very slight. The dust is a bit irritating, makes your nose run. I'm not very keen on wearing a mask, but in this case it helps.

Chris Hall said...

I really like your sensitive working of the elm to show the figure - especially in the crest rail and the two armrests. The side profile of the chair is very attractive as well. Keep up the good work!

djy said...

Thanks, Chris. The side view of that particular chair is my own favorite perspective. I like the way the arm curve relates to the more subtle curve in the corner post, there is a nice sweep there. I guess there is no law against complimenting one's own work every once-in-awhile.

The under frame appears a bit stiff, compared to above the seat, and I do think about adding some curve to the legs, but the current design is in keeping with the Windsor approach. The legs go quick on the lathe too, making curved ones would be an entirely different hand shaping process, and certainly longer to do as well. Good old ordinary has it's meanings, but looking for something new that works, has a lot of appeal to me these days.